Review of the Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Auctions in London: 29th June – 2nd July 2021

The Auction week in London saw strong results without the hyperbolic bidding of the recent past. The great items sold well but not for stratospheric sums and most of the good works merely scraped through having been presold to irrevocable bid guarantees. Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined brought over 330m GBP of sales in the week. Noticeably this figure includes the collection of Francis Gross in Paris, amalgamated into the London Evening sale at Christie’s. The border-less ease with which Paris sales are now London sales and vice versa makes for an intriguing lesson in world-time-keeping(!). All the Evening sales had clients present and Sotheby’s offered us 2pm champagne and canapes (no thank you to both) on Bella Freud cushions. It felt like a film set and the room was beautifully presented but I could count the number of winning bids (myself included) actually ‘in the room’ on one hand.

Sotheby’s Modern British Sale immediately preceded the top event of the night which included both the Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary department’s wares. The Mod Brit sale was built around a stunning, genuinely important, portrait of David Hockney by the late Lucien Freud. It fetched 15m GBP from an estimate of 8-12m GBP and was acquired by the Reuben brothers, one of whose daughter, Lisa, was present. Although small I thought the final price spot on. Personally, I prefer the stark, neurotic paintings of his earlier work but this was as good a late portrait as I can recall – as it should have been after 100 hours of sittings. There was also the deal of the week with Lowry’s first sporting picture selling for 3m GBP – 1928 Lowrys are rare indeed and this was a gem.

The major evening sale, with Helena Newman on the rostrum, saw good bidding for the top lots – including a lovely, late, ‘musical’ Kandinsky, ‘Tensions calmées’ of 1937 which realised 21m GBP (under which Helena and her family had performed as a string quartet a few nights earlier). I absolutely loved the 1960s Twombly too which made a fine 7.7 m GBP. One area of the Impressionist market that I consider hugely undervalued is that of the pastel works on paper created by Monet, Sisley and Pissarro in that brave new world of the 1870s and 1880s. Monet’s beautiful little pastel ‘Coucher de soleil sur la mer’ was one such gem and fetched a deserving, though pricey, 1.2m GBP. Two Degas ‘Baigneuses’ fetched decent prices and it was interesting to see that many of the more traditional works fared as well as the Warhols and Koons on offer – who would have thought that Murakami would sell in the same auction as two Renoirs. Overall Sotheby’s deserve to be happy with the results and the Day sale saw a decent sell through rate too. The bidding was Asia-heavy, as expected, but there were a fair few lots sold to irrevocable bids. Pre-sold lots are a neat hedge for the auction houses but in my view they do not give an accurate measure of an artist’s commercial following and such prices should be scrutinised when taking results to form an opinion on an artist’s overall market.

It is worth noting that the performance of the Banksy in the evening sale at Sotheby’s (Girl with Balloon, 2m GBP) did not reflect the poor performance of his works in the Day Sales the following afternoon – there were three lots unsold as his market finally starts to wain after a number of years of stratospheric prices.

Christie’s had a strong set of results in their cross-category sale: ‘20th/21st Century’. The opening lot was a 2016 Stanley Whitney which flew to 525,0000 GBP. An artist of real brilliance I was concerned that his Rome show with Gagosian was postponed last year – but it has not seemed to have affected his market. Many works went to their irrevocable bids and I was a little disappointed that the Kirchner oil, ‘Pantomime Reimann’ only fetched the low estimate. It was a masterpiece and although 7m GBP is a big price, it is similar to a unique Banksy oil in value these days. Perhaps if it had been a Berlin street scene, we would have seen a stronger price, but I thought it superb. Other highlights included a large late Picasso, ‘L’Etreinte’, which made over 14m GBP. These late ‘Avignon’ works continue to have a large following in Asia and Picasso is perhaps the high point of a band of easily recognisable, Modern, marquee names that attracts contemporary buyers too. I wonder if an analytical Cubist work from 1914 would have the same attraction – I hope so, but I fear not.

It seems that June sales, more and more, are getting harder to compile. They are the last of the year’s sales before the holidays and as such they tend to be down on numbers. Both houses made a concerted attempt to keep the market buoyant through mixing two departments into one sale event, but this resulted in making the pie far, far smaller than usual (50% of the May sales in NYC). It did work in terms of a strong sell-through rate and good overall, per-lot, numbers but I wonder if something else was at play in lessening the impact of these sales: Brexit. Brexit has severely restricted bidding from the EU. Anything acquired at auction will be subject to a relevant EU import VAT charge of 5.5-10% of the total cost on a UK-purchased item. That makes London a less attractive sale centre and I fear that Cologne auction rooms (Sotheby’s) and Paris auctions rooms (Christie’s) will take up much of the slack going forward. By transacting in the boundaries of the EU there is no need for EU nationals to pay import duty: a massive incentive to only look at EU-based sales. That said, with Asia continuing to prop up these London sales it might mean that EU bidders are no longer relevant enough to switch the main auction bases to the EU mainland – time will tell. I have not noticed any steepling growth in profits in Paris auction houses over the past 6 months.

Overall, it was a good set of sales and after the Summer recess we shall look forward, I hope, to travelling to the New York Fall Sales. Please, when buying or selling anything of significant value, do use an advisor who will help you to avoid the pitfalls so common in the art market.

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