Another marvellous feat of salesmanship was shown by the two auction houses in a week of selective but consistent bidding which resulted in strong prices across the board. The fact that many works were sold to one or two bids, and often to Irrevocable Bids (IBs), was neither here nor there. It was a triumphant week against significant headwinds caused by Russian sanctions and (what was thought to be) a slightly sleepy Asian market.

That the main lot of the week, a hyped Rene Magritte at Sotheby’s, ‘L’empire des lumieres’ realised a cool 59m GBP was reason enough to surmise that the market is still hot. Presale spending on marketing and partying matched the fervent excitement of New York in November ’21. Despite their weaker numbers, Sotheby’s had the better of the week in my view. The calibre of art up for grabs looked to be fairly equal but with Christie’s showing a slightly stronger contemporary section. The Christie’s evening sale had the kind of blockbuster hits in the Contemporary sphere that Sotheby’s could not match. Christie’s also boasted a superior Surrealist section given that Sotheby’s are selling their Surrealist pictures in Paris on 16th March. So, all in all, the numbers were fairly even: Sotheby’s Evening Sales at 222m GBP and Christie’s at 250m GBP.

At Christie’s on King St. the evening sale was a strange affair with all the trade seated at the back of the room leaving empty chairs between the telephone bidders; it felt like being at the back of the bus on a school trip and made for a needlessly sparse main room. The splitting of the sale between Shanghai and London did not work with the main Chinese auctioneer too slow and, frankly, weak. Jussi Pylkkanen, in London, was at full throttle to wrest life back into the sale. Christie’s high point was the sale of their exceptional restituted work by Franz Marc: ‘The Foxes’ being sold to benefit the Grawi heirs. The painting was hammered down at 42.6m GBP including premium which was the highest price paid for a Marc by quite a margin: 32.5m USD to be precise. I was delighted to see Lucien Freud’s sensuous portrait of his lover and muse Janey Longman make over 15m GBP. The Francis Bacon, ‘Triptych 1986-87’, was sold to the guarantee and though a superb painting, highlighted by the RA show, the subject was hardly commercial. It was not the only failure, and I was surprised by the big highlight in the Surrealist section, Picasso’s ‘La fenêtre ouverte’, which only made 16.3m GBP and also sold on the guarantee. Yet, overall, the prices fetched for 21st Century art made up for the Modern period glitches. There were super prices for Emmanuel Taku, Ewa Juszkiewicz and Joel Mesler. And oh, how I wish I had bought that wonderful painter Genieve Figgis’s work when it was buyable – she just sold for over 478,000 GBP.

Over at Sotheby’s the sale previews were solid enough but I think most trade would describe them as unspectacular (apart from the Macklowe collection’s works but hey are up in May). That said, the salesmanship of the house and the bright optimism of every specialist I met made for some superb prices. As well as the Magritte we saw superb prices for a lovely but late-ish Van Rysselberghe of his Riviera-vision ‘Rossignol’(1.2m GBP), a wonderful 7m GBP price for a Caillebotte and a bonkers 14m GBP for a late Hockney, ‘Garrowby Hill’. (Late Hockney is an oddity, it seems so staid to me.) The bidding was good and though much was on the phone I was so pleased that the room was full and the buzz was back after two years of socially-distanced auction room seating and masks. Hats off to the management for adapting the room to accommodate the production and the audience – there was a super atmosphere. 

The day sales at both houses were very good and, again, generated a buzz which led to bidding from the floor as well as the internet. Chagall, Picasso and Loiseau (!) were winners as well as most of the female and black artists’ work offered which have become so rightfully followed by eager collectors of all ages and backgrounds. I was particularly impressed by the Sotheby’s auctioneer Holly Braine – whose wielding of the hammer was concise, precise and quick.

Overall, it was a strong sales series and I was delighted that the London auction market was up and running and back in the room after these horrid times. Ukraine was a cloud over the whole week, however, and our hearts go out to all those affected. I shall post again in May in the run up to the New York Auctions but in the meanwhile, if you are spending significant sums, please do use an advisor to avoid those hideous pitfalls in buying high value works of art.