The art market this week has seen a mixed bag of quality and quantity both in the trade and at auction with dealers and galleries doing their utmost to show their wares without the art fair platforms so beloved of the art market in recent years. The auction houses have plainly been working all summer to come up with the right way to auctioneer in 2020 and, to a great extent, Sotheby’s have nailed it. The televisual approach with class leading production and outstanding auctioneering has made for a pretty seamless experience. That said, the difficulty in actually seeing paintings physically has been a big obstacle. Those works that I did preview have been in amongst empty galleries with no parties, no incentives to brave the London streets and very little in the way of top, top class quality to draw crowds. That said there were one or two handsome numbers fetched at both of the major auctions this week.
Sotheby’s had some intriguing results with the top lot of the week a work by Banksy, the graffiti artist whose works now command higher prices than top Monets. Indeed, the irony was that Banksy’s painting, ‘Show me the Monet’ (7.5m GBP) was a mickey-taking riff on the cult of the image-driven art market itself. Yet amongst the endless loop of box-ticking (Richter, Basquiat, Ghenie etc. etc.) were some real gems. The simply stunning Transparence by Francis Picabia entitled ‘Minos’ made nearly 4m Euros. I think the large works from this series represent some of the most interesting paintings in early 20th C. painting – a fluid and fascinating twist on the neo-classical ‘return to order’. Also on the block was a Picasso ‘Tête d’homme’ of 1940 – a good but not outstanding piece, of diminutive size, that made a very strong 4.4m Euros. The finest of the Contemporary paintings was a Bridget Riley that was withdrawn from sale, probably due to a lack of interest, on account of its staggering estimate – 5.5m GBP. Despite being 1966 (a great date) that sort of level is simply too hard to justify for a work that was offered in 2016 and made 4.4m GBP including costs – a record that still stands.
Over at Christie’s (from Paris and London) the big result of the night was for a wonderful, large, Peter Doig painting titled ‘Boiler House’ which was a fascinating dystopian depiction of a building amongst Le Corbusier’s utopian housing project (Unité d’Habitation) outside Paris – which fell into disrepair. Its price, of 14m GBP, pushes Doig well and truly into the big league for active painters. In Paris there was a staggering price for a wonderful, fresh to market, Pierre Soulages painting of 1961: 5.3m Euros. One success of real importance last evening was the David Hockney portrait of Sir David Webster that fetched over 12.8m GBP for the Royal Opera House, who were selling the piece to raise funds. I doubt this will be the first of the fire sales that we see ‘thanks’ to Covid: there will be plentiful opportunities for cash rich buyers in the coming 12-18 months.
Next week sees Sotheby’s New York host their major auctions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art in New York, slightly ahead of schedule thanks to the US election. It will prove to a fascinating sale season for Sotheby’s and there will be a preview to follow. Stay well, stay safe and use an art advisor!