Review of the Spring Auctions, London: 23rd-26th March 2021

Last week’s Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art auctions, mainly in London, saw remarkably strong bidding throughout all the sales. Across the board, sell-through rates were high (well over 90% by lot across all Evening sale formats) and the overall feeling was one of relief that the market is still countering the Covid headwind. A long lapse between sales series, a strong reaction by President Biden in creating 2 Trillion USD for the US economy and a fair few bitcoin-millionaires, bidding stratospheric numbers, were just some of the reasons for this mini-boom.

In efforts to make the sale series as worldly as possible Christie’s exhibited lot 1, a large Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) entitled Warrior, from its Hong Kong branch. Although the auction of the lot took place in London with Jussi Pylkkänen at the rostrum it became the most valuable Western artwork sold in Asia for 42m USD. A big price but perhaps a little bit of an anti-climax for such a choice work given the 70m USD paid for a Beeple (b. 1981) NFT recently. 

It was in London in the following 80-odd lots that Christie’s really performed well. The decision to merge departments into one sale made for a quality-filled 20th Century Art sale mixing the best of the Impressionists with the likes of Pierre Soulages, Alexander Calder and even bleeding-edge contemporary artists such as Issy Wood (b. 1993). This amalgamation makes for less of the Sisley/Corot dirge of some Impressionist Evening Sales and works very well indeed. However, the newer artworks need to be of adequate calibre to hang in the same room as Picasso and Warhol and that is the challenge for such a strategy in the future. 

Another notable contemporary highlight, apart from the vast Basquiat, was the Banksy oil, ‘Gamechanger’, that was sold on behalf of the NHS and fetched a gobsmacking 16m GBP. Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) ‘Femme nue…’ of 1932 made a strong 15m GBP give its size and slightly sloppy sketchiness in parts. I have always felt that the goldrush for Nicolas de Stael and Pierre Soulages has led to some worthy post-war figures getting lost: Jean Fautrier’s (1898-1964) work – notably his 40s masterpieces, full of texture, are now getting recognition in the market. ‘Pieges (Traps)’ from 1946 tripled its high estimate making 4.5m GBP and setting a new world record price.

Overall, Christie’s did a magnificent job with their ‘Art of the Surreal’ sale with the Surrealist Art guru, Olivier Camu, impressing upon potential buyers that it was the best of its type he had ever managed. There were vast prices for Rene Magritte’s (1898-1967) ‘Le mois des vendanges’ (10m GBP), Joan Mirò’s (1893-1983) ‘Peinture’ of 1925 (10m GBP), Max Ernst’s (1891-1976) ‘Cage, Forêt et soleil noir’ (3m GBP) and a particularly wonderful 1937 Oscar Dominguez (1906-1958) oil ‘Madamme’ which fetched over 1.1m GBP.

Across Piccadilly, Sotheby’s had a full-on, no holds barred, cross-category auction grandly titled: Modern Renaissance. The title was presumably trying to link the stunning renaissance masterwork by Piero del Pollaiuolo, ‘Portrait of a boy’ (4.5m GBP) with the likes of modern and contemporary pieces. As a sale I thought it looked sensational. A wonderful mix of great Edvard Munch (1863-1944), superb Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), a jaw-dropping Arshile Gorky (1904-948) and many other gems made for a super sell-through rate and a very happy Sotheby’s top brass by all accounts. Mixing categories can make for a tricky sale to pitch as one does not want to alienate Old Masters collectors by showing the likes of a 1500 Giulio Romano painting in the same sale as a Banksy. Yet here the quality was good enough to pull it off.

As mentioned, the two Edvard Munchs from the Olsen collection were sensational and ‘Summer Day’ (part of the ill-fated Linde Freize) made 16m GBP. The other work, an unsigned 1926 self-portrait from his Ekely period realised 4.3m GBP. Two major prices for a true genius whose art continues to enthral – indeed Tracy Emin, whose paintings I really admire, is a fan and recently shared galleries with Munch’s work for a recent Royal Academy exhibition (very sadly foiled by Covid).

David Hockney’s (b. 1937) multi-format oil: ‘Tall Dutch trees after Hobbema’ was an intriguing work and innovative as ever. The canvas was split into various shapes and sizes forming a symmetrical pattern highlighting the extraordinary depth of perspective of the original Hobbema ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ at the National Gallery. It squeaked by at the reserve and was a very canny acquisition at 6.7m GBP.

Finally, my favourite work of the whole series was an Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) painting: ‘Garden in Sochi’. The relatively diminutive oil fetched over 8.5m GBP and deserved every penny. Painted in 1940-41 it sees Gorky extricate himself from the analytical, classical, cubist world of the European school and move toward a more expressive, more dangerous art born of the titans of the USA’s east coast: Pollock, Twombly et al. This little yellow painting shows a turning point not only in Gorky’s art but as a turning point in the very history of art itself: the avant-garde’s journey from Europe to America.

Preceding the London auction there was a superb Impressionist and Modern Art sale in Paris with several highlights including a wonderful Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) from his pre-Arles Paris period, ‘Scene de rue à Montmartre…’ which fetched 13m Euros. The Van Gogh market shows no sign of abating even while the Contemporary art world captures the headlines. Another gem was an Edgar Degas (1834-1917), ‘Danseuse au tutu vert’ from the Polignac collection which made a relatively modest 2.6m Euros. Executed partly in the 1880s and partly in the 1890s this was an exquisite piece showing Degas’ bravery with colour and balance of composition. I thought it would make more even given its jewel-like size.

Overall a very satisfactory week for all, and given the likelihood of the world opening up this bodes well for the future. Art is, to some extent, a good store of wealth and a good inflation hedge. Yet it pays to use an advisor so please do seek advice if you are considering investing serious sums.

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