Auction Review: The Spring Season’s Opener at Christie’s London & New York

The 1st March evening auctions in London and New York were a huge success with 98% sold by lot. Never has a 44m GBP Evening sale/s been so welcomed by the trade and collectors the world over. The market seems as strong as ever but there were mitigating factors: Christie’s has been helped by the lack of art fairs, by the lack of open galleries and most of all by the lack of any competition this week. Still, it was a welcome tonic in these still-so-strange times.

As per usual these days the sales were conducted without a physical audience but were shown online. This is now becoming normal and I fear it is here to stay – especially for the less marquee events. Christie’s have changed their layout and made the operation far slicker, i.e. more like the Sotheby’s production. However, unlike Sotheby’s they are not taking on sponsorship which is a good thing. Having Bulgari flashed across our senses throughout the Old Masters auction was rather sad, rather desperate and not what great collectors would appreciate.

Anyway, back to Christie’s: the evening started very well with eight high value lots up for sale in New York. It was a superb little group being offered by the brilliant dealer Thomas Gibson. Gibson gave a very open interview to the Times and claimed he was selling due to the worry of a rise in inheritance tax in the chancellor’s budget (he needn’t have been). The sale included a superb Van Gogh work on paper, La Mousmé, (10.4m USD) a brilliant little Lucien Freud Self-Portrait (2.2m USD) and a rare Henry Moore work on paper from the Shelter series (3.2m USD). The auction totalled 25m USD – not bad for an eight lot sale of works on paper!

The Modern British Evening Sale was also strong although I felt that the prices did, at times, get out of control. I wonder if Winston Churchill ever imagined in his wildest dreams that a painting of his would sell for over 8m GBP. Churchill was a gifted amateur ably assisted in his early work by the great Sir John Lavery but to consider that his painting of Koutoubia Mosque would climb to such a number made me feel that this was being offered more as a historical document than a suitably great work of art. Indeed, Lavery’s own work depicting The Viscountess Castlerosse in Palm Springs (and better than Churchill’s effort in every way) made a paltry 870,000 GBP in comparison! One other point of note is that the Churchill was sold by Angelina Jolie which can have done the bidding no harm at all.

My favourite piece in the sale was the Hepworth slate sculpture illustrated, ‘Three Round Forms’ of 1971 which fetched a dizzying 600,000 GBP. Her work from the 1970s is starting to attract the sort of audience that was previously only keen on the early work. I think that we are seeing the beginning of Henry Moore-like pricing points for Hepworth: and quite right too.

Whilst it is easy to focus on the big names like Moore, Hepworth and Nicholson it was great to see Michael Craig-Martin’s fabulous painting ‘With Red Shoes’ make 325,000 GBP. His work is the epitome of the contemporary still-life: objects float, randomly, with no hint of scale or connection. His canvases are so upbeat, strong and vibrant amongst the browns and ochres of the average Modern British exhibition.

Overall, the sales were a triumph and bode well for the next major auction series which is up on the events page – week commencing 22nd March. London’s Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales are next and promise to be very good judging by recent prices.

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