Although Sotheby’s and Christie’s had managed to put together solid auctions for the March season in London, expectations were conservative running into the sales. The strange decision to overlap the early part of TEFAF, Maastricht, with the auction season meant that much of the trade was away for the main evening sales, OSFA Ltd included! However, in light of world affairs and a continued obsession with high interest rates from central banks the market fared remarkably well. There was deep bidding for the work of women artists and notable prices were seen with Etel Adnan, Rebecca Warren and Victor Man breaking their auction records. The vast majority of the top lots found buyers. Perhaps the main disappointment was the number of withdrawn lots prior to sale due to a lack of interest (10 lots in Sotheby’s Evening Sale alone) and for this I blame the over-crammed sales with heavy lot counts and a wide dispersal of periods and genres in one selling platform. The sale series needs to be a week-long event, to be championed and celebrated rather than crammed into a short selling period for advisors and hardcore collectors willing to fly to London for a day or two. That’s only my view, and I am always going to be a proudly London-centric dealer. With London being pushed out of major consignments thanks to a laden NYC sale-schedule, I fear these satellite sales could get shorter and smaller as a consequence. The seasons may well consist of two major weeks a year in NYC and then four other minor sales seasons between London, Paris and Hong Kong (the Koln experiment has probably failed). Over-regulation and the poor treatment of the trade in central London (rates, staffing costs and burdensome admin are absurd) has lessened its draw as a destination to bid for great works of art.

The Evening Sale highlights over at Sotheby’s (in a sale that brought ‘only’ 100m GBP) were for items that didn’t necessarily raise the roof from a press perspective but were seriously good works of art. In the Impressionist and Modern Art section there was the top lot of the sale: a large Picasso ‘Mousquetaire’ that made 13m GBP, a wonderful Pointilliste Signac depicting St. Tropez that fetched 7.7m GBP and my highlight: a wonderful portrait by Soutine that squeaked by at 550,000 GBP and deserved much more. The Contemporary section boasted some strong numbers for established artists such as a Francis Bacon depiction of George Dyer which brought nearly 7m GBP; but perhaps the best work of its type was the Auerbach masterpiece that made a glorious price of over 4m GBP! In light of the struggling Modern British market the blue-chip names are worth following and I would advise anyone with a budget to look into the predecessors (and contemporaries) of Bacon and Freud and start acquiring Bomberg, Auerbach and Kossoff before their markets become truly international. Overall, the Sotheby’s team could be well congratulated for capturing such a depth of bidding in a season when they were robustly outgunned by their rivals at Christie’s.

The Christie’s March season is always centred on what the master of Surrealist art, Olivier Camu, will rustle up for his sale on King St. A painting of the famous bowler-hatted man (‘L’ami intime’) from behind by Rene Magritte fetched a mighty 33m GBP (albeit sold to the Irrevocable Bid (IB) pre-sale) and numerous other Magritte’s made strong numbers. The Magritte market sits in that interesting market sector between the easily recognisable works of the Impressionists and the somewhat harder to fathom, for the uninitiated, Ab-ex painters. Another wonderful painter from the 1930s and 40s is Yves Tanguy and his brilliant work ‘Clothed in Wakefulness’ made 650,000 GBP from an estimate of 500-700k GBP. I think the Tanguy market, which has had its troubles in the last ten years, is due a significant comeback and I cannot help but think he is dramatically under-priced – especially his 1940s New York pictures when under the stewardship of Pierre Matisse Gallery and, of course, the mighty Peggy Guggenheim. I enjoyed the two early Antoni Tapies works that were bravely sold in the context of an evening sale. They were gems and the larger picture, ‘The Bull’ was bought for a great price of 200k GBP all in.

The main event, the evening sale of 20th Century Art was a star-studded affair considering it was a London sale series. There were significant Museum-calibre works offered and the main pictures did sparklingly well. David Hockney’s Pool Painting ‘California’ made 19m GBP – a classic interpretation of lackadaisical west coast heat as only DH could paint. Francis Bacon’s stirring masterwork ‘Landscape near Malabata’ fetched a colossal 20m GBP and, for me, was one of the very finest I have seen – a whirlwind of movement reminiscent of the Futurists. Also, perhaps the rarest picture to be seen in an evening sale was the Michael Andrews work ‘ School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish’ which sold for a stunning 3.1m GBP. Christie’s will be chuffed: over the two evening sales: four works made over 10m GBP and the final total of nearly 200m GBP was a triumph for the house.

So, in conclusion, it was a very solid week and far better than expected. We shall wait to see what happens at Christie’s for their major Modern British Art Sale on 20th March but I think the art market is sure to be content going into the busy period of NYC in May and the Summer fair marathons (Art Basel, Frieze NYC, Treasure House etc.)! As ever, please, do use an advisor when purchasing significant works of art for significant sums of money as there are plenty of pitfalls to be avoided when building a collection!