Review of London’s June Auctions & Art Fairs Galore!

It has been a very busy month with three art fairs covered and a multitude of London auctions too. The takeaway from the two-week marathon has been that prices have stayed, for the most part, buoyant and though bidding levels weren’t terribly deep that was mainly due to the vast quantity of work available for sale in New York in May. There appeared to be distinct auction ‘fatigue’ last week; as there has been in every June sale since the auction calendar was changed to concertina the London season from February to March. The calendar is too tightly packed without enough space between sales. Buyers get bored and consignors aren’t willing to consign to a traditionally difficult London auction season.

That said, there were some great results. At Christie’s on the opening night credit is due to the Chagall Estate for offering a substantial haul of work in London over Paris. The sale total surpassed all expectations with a total including premium of 9.7m GBP. The prices for Chagall have been consistently strong since I started in the art world 23 years ago and where other similar artists would have been labelled too saccharine for 21stcentury tastes Chagall’s market keeps performing. Indeed, I was told that Christie’s most commercial artist was not a Koons or a Bacon but Marc Chagall. His work still sings to many and although much of the sale was late, dusty, studio pickings there were a couple of gems.

Christie’s evening sale later that afternoon was a muted affair with the majority of the bidding online, but I was astounded by some prices. Yves Klein’s impressive ‘Anthropometry (ANT 124)’ made 27m GBP but might have made more in the context of a New York sale give his international acclaim. Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Hollow Form with White Interior’, a star of this auction week, made 5.8m GBP from an already toppy estimate of 4-6m GBP. Two wonderful Monet paintings, a 1907 Nympheas and a Waterloo Bridge both made identical prices of 30m GBP and show the depth of his market following on from those works offered as part of the Bass collection in NYC in May. Presumably the Nympheas buyer was one of the underbidders from that sale as the Bass Nympheas in NYC proved very expensive. Yet the surprise price of the sale, as often seems to be the case these days, was the Magritte ‘Souvenir de Voyage’ which fetched 16m GBP. To put this into context this was a shade less than the Christie’s 21m USD price for a far superior ‘Empire des Lumieres’ in only 2017. How his market has rocketed. I was told it was a bidding war between only two clients but still, what a price! And it will doubtless fuel the fire of the Magritte market going into the November sales series. Consignors galore will be knocking on the door of Christie’s with their late, ‘Apple’, oils.

Jeff Koons’ ‘Balloon Monkey’ made 10m GBP off the back of the generous donation of the whole amount to Ukraine humanitarian causes. This was below par for such a work. I think the Koons Market has had its day, especially with recession around the corner, and the time for big, bright, conspicuous shows of wealth (synonymous with Koons Balloon works) may be ebbing.

In the contemporary section of the sale there were a few discrepancies in comparison to market expectations: a Cecily Brown failed to sell, and the lovely Stanley Whitney painting ‘New York Sound’ struggled too. I find that with Whitney paintings the colour blocks need to be perfectly clean: if the paint is too thin and drips into other planes of pigment it spoils the composition and with it the commerciality of the work. Ernie Barnes, the champion of the May sales, fetched a strong price of 1.5m GBP with ‘Main Street Pool Hall’ but I would be very cautious about following that market – it is American ‘Beryl Cook’ in my opinion.

Over at Sotheby’s there were two major sales including a patriotic ‘Jubilee’ sale. The Modern and Contemporary section boasted a very good but rather hidden Claude Monet which should have performed better than its eventual 11m GBP. The ‘Vetheuil’ works are underrated in my view and the best examples should eventually compete with the 30-40m GBP level of the London pictures and the Lillies. What they lack in subject-matter-cachet they make up for in painterly brilliance. I was pleased to see a pretty perfect Kandinsky work on paper ‘Strich Zentraler’ make 866,000 GBP. Kandinsky works on paper are well worth a look as I don’t feel he garners the prices he deserves. They have just the same intensity of workmanship as his paintings and a good, monochrome, work on paper can be had for a relatively conservative 70,000 GBP.

Cloud paintings by both Gerhard Richter and John Constable adorned the Sotheby’s sale season. Richter’s ‘Study for Clouds’ of 1970 made 11.1m GBP and these ‘Wolken’ works really are astounding in their conceptual, art-historical, resonance as much as their painterly excellence. The link to Friedrich and to German philosophy is a reminder of the great legacy of German culture pre-20th Century. I do question the price but with a slight dearth of top end ‘classic’ contemporary art this season perhaps its high price was inevitable. The little Constable ‘Cloud Study’ (c. 1882) very pretty but installed next to the Richter it looked rather titchy – nonetheless bidding was strong, and it smashed its presale estimate to fetch 730k GBP.

The Jubilee sale was a real success with proof, if proof were needed, that the Modern British market is as strong as ever. Stunning prices were seen throughout the sale. Barbara Hepworth’s wooden sculptures are on a hot streak and her 1945 work, ‘Elegy’, made 2.6m GBP (it is only 48.5cm. in height!). The top price of the week went to a magnificent Bacon portrait of his friend Lucian Freud: 43m GBP for a single work (i.e non triptych) was his top price ever. What I liked about this sale was the effort made to cross departments and to show the best of late 19th century work in the same high-profile context. There was 2.4m GBP paid for a Parkes Bonnington, 2m GBP for a Millais as well as numerous lesser works by luminaries such as Turner and Gainsborough. 

Sadly a few pieces didn’t sell, and the Banksy bubble is bursting loudly – ‘Turf War’ (a mocking picture of Churchill as a punk) failed to bother bidders at 4m GBP and a large Hockney ‘Woodscape’ didn’t get close to its low estimate of 10m GBP.

The fairs this season proved rather flat and though I wanted to visit Art Basel I was scuppered by Gatwick difficulties. That said, I managed to drive over to BRAFA (Brussels) for a client meeting and TEFAF (Maastricht) for a morning tour of the vernissage.

BRAFA was held in a very large and very imposing Heysel complex but the fair felt far easier to navigate and enjoy than previous iterations at ‘Tour & Taxis’. The calibre of work was certainly not on a par with TEFAF but the feeling was that this fair is getting better and better with smaller Paris galleries able to afford a decent booth and there were a few gems on the walls. I saw a great Fautrier with Galerie AB, a superb little Bellmer with Vrain (a Paris Book dealer) and there were multiple gorgeous Bram Bogarts and Spilliaerts as one could expect. Overall, I would highly recommend a visit when the fair returns to its usual schedule in January 2023.

TEFAF was a bit of a cauldron for the first morning with no air conditioning working and happily they will be holding the fair in March 2023, not June. The heat and the lack of space in the aisles made for a very hot two hours where I spent most of my time in the Modern section. Although not the biggest fair (due to prices and date changes I am told) there were some lovely stands, and I am always drawn to the German Expressionist dealers such as Weinerrother and Ludorff who had glorious works by Kirchner, Nolde, Schiele and Klimt. There were some stupendous pictures on display: an amazing Tom Wesselman with Van der Weghe, a stunning ‘Eagle’ by Baselitz with White Cube and a mesmerising Paul Edouard-commissioned Giorgio de Chirico with Dickinson’s gallery. The one thing I love about TEFAF is seeing the mix of different world-class galleries showing their very best work. Although it was slight in size and a little toasty I thoroughly enjoyed the calibre of work on display. Please do go to both fairs next year if you can.

In London I frequented Masterpiece with the usual fervour as it is a fair that I have consistently enjoyed visiting. The nature of the OSFA client base meant that touring the fair (pre-covid) with London clients was a huge part of my work. I love it. Showing clients great Modern British works on the stands of Crane Kalman, Offer Waterman and Piano Nobile. I thought the Turnbulls with Waterman and Wheatley supreme. There were very strong Auerbach works, numerous little Hepworth sculptures and even a top-class Lowry or four! A great fair and well done to all who put together those stands. Perhaps next year there will be a more international flavour as galleries are less affected by Covid and by Brexit headwinds (we can but hope!).

It has been a frantic, but fun, few weeks. However, whilst much being offered for sale is good, with the odd gem, much is in poor condition with terrible provenance. Please do use an advisor when you spend significant sums. It is seriously worthwhile!