The sales this June season were too close to the New York May sales to allow the auction house specialists to put together a really first-rate auction season. That said, the results for what was on offer, especially at Sotheby’s, were solid. Some major works were unsold including a fabulous Leger and Matisse at Christie’s. The Fernand Leger (1841-1955) ‘Femme au Fauteuil’ of 1913, from his most important and revolutionary era, failed to find a buyer at 25m GBP despite some strong marketing in the run up to the auction. Despite the vast 70m USD price paid for Leger’s ‘Contraste de Formes’ work in 2017 there was clearly not the appetite for another big price. Perhaps the work was a little too figurative for 1913 with a little too much primer layer visible but I thought it was a super example. Ex-colleagues across Picadilly thought the low estimate price should be closer to 15m GBP.
The big results were twofold: a pre-sold Claude Monet (1840-1926), ‘Nympheas’, at Sotheby’s which made 24m GBP and a Modigliani which fetched 18.4m GBP. Neither, to my knowledge, were bought by Sotheby’s new owner, Mr Drahi, but he will have ample opportunity to cover guarantees in the future! The Monet was a typically elegant and pretty painting but it lacked the dynamism of others from that series. The Modigliani was a good picture but from that period (1918) I would expect a finer colour layer and a more delicate touch. There are countless better examples, but his works’ rarity has led to the prices he now commands.
Other strong prices were for late Picassos both at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, indeed Christie’s top single price for their 37m GBP sale was a late Picasso ‘Homme et femmes nus’ monochrome which made 12.5m GBP (one third of the sale total!). Christie’s amazing large Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) painting, ‘L’extinction des espèces’, made a very good price of 3.1m GBP too. One of the stories of the week was the outstanding results for restituted works at Sotheby’s. A wonderful 1897 Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), ‘Le Boulevard de Montmartre’ made 7.2m GBP and a fantastic series of Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) works on paper made a combined total of over 4m GBP. The Kubin series was tough in subject matter (one work was entitled ‘Epidemic’… you get the picture!) but I do love the technique and the bravery of his depicting the scary worlds he imagined.
The Day sales were very strong at Sotheby’s with 1.4m GBP paid for a large late Picasso oil and a string of good results for privately offered property at reasonable prices. Over at Christie’s the price that stood out for me was the 1.1m GBP paid for a stunning August Macke (1887-1914) work on paper entitled ‘Spazierganger (Anlage mit Modegeschaft und Spaziergangern)’. One rarely sees his paintings these days and he remains one of the most lyrical and elegant compositional artists of ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ group.
The Contemporary sales saw huge results for post-war blue riband artists such as Francis Bacon (1909-1992), 16.5m GBP for ‘Self-Portrait’, and Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), 8.7m GBP for ‘Ceremonie’. However, world records were seen for lesser names such as the magnificent Wols (1913-1951) whose ‘Vert, strié, noir, rouge’ made over 4m GBP. This painting was one of only 85 known by the artist. An Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) self-portrait made nearly 6m GBP at Sotheby’s. Oehlen is an artist of real importance but I found this price surprising in light of its relatively late 1998 execution date.
These were good sales but the timing of the calendar, and notably the later May sales, needs revision if London in June is not to become an also-ran amongst the big four sale weeks of the year.
Masterpiece art fair runs until 3rdJuly and I shall be at the event throughout should assistance be required.