Review: The Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Auctions in London: 4th-14th February 2020

Overall the sales fared better than expected this term with tightly curated sales being the norm across the three top auction houses’ auctions. Sotheby’s generated genuine interest in their wonderful Levy collection of three works: one large Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) (Gelee Blanche…, 13.2m GBP) and two very different but lovely Paul Signac (1863-1935) oils (Quai de Clichy, 1.3m GBP & La Corne d’Or, 7.6m GBP). The market for great Impressionist paintings is still, well, great! The over-enthusiastic naysayers telling us of the frightful drop in the Impressionist market fail to realise that the issue is not the demand it is simply the supply. The decorative Cubist work by Jean Metzinger (1883-1956), Le cycliste, smashed expectations with a 3m GBP price tag – perhaps the cycling subject commanded a premium, but it was a fascinating piece. Amongst the connoisseurs one picture really struck gold: the Franz Marc (1880-1916) ‘Blau Reiter’ work entitled Zwei Blaue Esel of 1912 was the thoroughbred of the sale with a wonderful subject making for a wonderful price: over 4m GBP. As is usual for this time of year (traditionally the Surrealist auction theme is a February event) the Surrealist paintings did great business with even the Pyke Koch (1901-1991) painting (no, I have not heard of him either) making over 550,000 GBP. Since Emmanuel di Donna left Sotheby’s there has been a real dearth of quality in the Surrealist sales at Sotheby’s and the trade feels that Christie’s have that market somewhat ‘sewn up’ with Olivier Camu at the helm.

At Christie’s the astonishing Rene Magritte (1898-1967) market continued to shine with a bowler hatted late work, A la recontre du plaisir making nearly 19m GBP and almost all the Magrittes in the sale made prices well in excess of expectations. There is a real impetus behind his market and since the ‘Empire of light’ result of 20m USD in 2017 his prices have reached new heights. Date seems to be of little consequence as 1960s paintings are just as valuable as the really important 30s paintings. Christie’s were also helped by a huge number for a Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) Portrait of Marjorie Ferry which made over 16m GBP. Lempicka is an intriguing figure: her work is decorative and stylised with luxurious modelling that mirrors the Art Deco influences of the 1920s New York set. I do question her place in the pantheon of great artists, however, and feel her prices are somewhat over-cooked. Again, my favourite picture in the sale was from Germany and George Grosz’s (1893-1959) Gefahrliche Strasse Berlin painting which fetched 9,7m GBP. It is the classic portrait of a time, July 1918, where a World War was being lost and another was all too soon to follow.

The contemporary sales were strong but perhaps lacked the real impetus of a large group collection to assist the final figures. Sotheby’s stunning David Hockney (b. 1937) Splash was a bit of a damp squib making ‘only’ 23m GBP but it was from a group of paintings by the artist of the same scene which may have ostracised collectors at the 20m GBP plus level. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) garnered a fair result with Rubber of 1985 making 7.5m GBP – though expectations were higher. I thought it was a strong composition but perhaps his market is getting a little over-saturated. I cannot recall an auction of any contemporary sale without at least one of his works involved. Given his working life was about 9 years that is really quite a feat. Eddie Martinez (b. 1977) was the standout of the new names with his Empirical Mind State making over 600,000 GBP from an estimate of only 100-150,000 GBP.

Christie’s Contemporary sale was a quieter affair with about half the success in its sale total (though not on the bottom line necessarily). A late Bridget Riley (b. 1931) Gaillard did well making over 2m GBP; which follows the outstanding (and slightly eye-tiring) Hayward gallery show has increased her exposure yet further. There were strong results for Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) too as his early ‘Art Brut’ works are making deservedly high prices. 

Phillips enjoyed a very strong sale as they sold the Robert Tibbles collection of Damien Hirst works. I wonder if the two main houses were put off by the damp Hirst market, but Phillips did a great job – establishing a price of 1.2m GBP for a 1994 Spot painting of real class. Other wonders were the Amoako Boafo Lemon Bathing Suitwhich flew to a 675,000 GBP result and the glorious Tschabalala Self (b. 1990) picture: Princess which fetched over 400,000 GBP. New artists are getting big prices which indicates a healthy future for the top of the art market.

Overall it was a strong, if not spectacular, season of auctions. Please do use an advisor if you are considering buying major works of art as there are numerous pitfalls to avoid in both the auction and private treaty art market.

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