The reaction of the art market to our Covid-19-imposed lockdowns has been quite extraordinary. The Sotheby’s Evening sale on 29th June took 363m USD, whilst at Christie’s on 10th July a total of 420m USD was stated. This is quite something for a sale series where relatively few collectors could actually, physically, have inspected the preview. However, there is no question that takings from both houses will be at least 50% of their 2019 results – no May sale series of note was possible and though intermittent online sales sound marvellous; they are not hugely profitable.

Sotheby’s decision to hold the 29th June auction as a way of pushing their online bidding presence was clear from the outset. The vast marketing campaign building up to the auction leant heavily on the recent, strong, online bidding activity to attract consignments. The simple idea was having one auctioneer, Oliver Barker, in London hosting the sale from a rostrum in front of multiple monitors and taking bids from colleagues on phones around the world. Online bidding was also a central tenet and the Francis Bacon masterpiece was underbid online. Now that’s dependable broadband for you, BT please note!

I must admit that I was sceptical about the marketing as the sale was merely an extension of what was already starting to happen around 2017 when I recall clients really starting to engage with online bidding. Very few paintings at the top end are bought by private individuals with a paddle these days. Those in-room bidders tend to be experienced advisors (like your correspondent) able to keep a check on ‘chandelier’ bidding, keep the auctioneer honest by cutting bids and, where necessary, lengthening the bidding process.

The main highlights fared well and there were very few disappointments. The press magnet was the Bacon, a large triptych of real power and visceral heft: ‘Triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus’ which made 85m USD. This was a painting from 1981 and in a lesser league to his record from 2013: ‘Three studies of Lucian Freud’ of 1969 which made 142m USD. ‘Oresteia’ made a truly vast price in the circumstances. Indeed, I believe the selling family, the Astrups, had been offering the picture to the market extensively prior to sale. They would have been delighted with the result. Another absolute gem of a picture was the hugely important Roy Lichtenstein: ‘White Brushstroke I’ of 1965 which proved such a vital art-historical signpost on the way from AbEx to POP. It made 25.5m USD and, whisper it, deserved even more.

The success of the Ginny Williams collection was testament to the commercial buoyancy of the market in chasing great works of art at conservative estimates. A world record 7.9m USD was paid for the 1975 ‘Royal Fireworks’ painting by Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler’s market is rightly going from strength to strength as more and more of her the prime works are being offered onto the market. 1940s/50s AbEx paintings and top POP ‘60s pieces are now so rarely seen on the market that great 1970s painters are commanding millions. Indeed, there is a fabulous seam of work by top female artists from the 19080s that will be highly sought after soon enough. Prices for artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and, at a more reasonable level, Annette Lemieux will be worth keeping an eye on.

One of my favourite pieces in the sale was the Impressionist & Modern Art cover lot: Wifredo Lam’s ‘Omi Obini’. It sold on the reserve, but I feel that that was a clever buy given the vast potential of the Latin American art market. The major successes in the sale were the results we witnessed for the ‘Vanguard’ section: Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo and other wonderful female Surrealist artists which all made top prices. I recall offering Leonor Fini paintings at Sotheby’s Olympia for 5,000-7,000 GBP and questioning why such a talent could only sell for those numbers. I am delighted her work is being appreciated by the 2020 market and her painting ‘Figures on a terrace’ made 980,000 USD.

At Christie’s their ONE sale was an equally impressive and hyped affair but slightly more ‘old normal’ than the Sotheby’s approach. Given the change in rulings over social distancing between late June and mid-July trade bidders could be seen in the rooms at all four of the auctions. Indeed, one of the lots (A gorgeous Antonio Saura) was actually bought in the room by Emma Ward, director of Dickinson in London.

Highlights were plentiful with a total of 420m USD over the four auctions in four different salerooms in four different currencies (yes, Christie’s ONE was a confusing title). Sadly, I felt the sale lacked the clarity of the Sotheby’s effort; with different auctioneers having different styles making the process seem a little disjointed. Jussi Pylkkänen or Adrien Meyer would have been my choice to take the whole thing.

Although 38 of the 80 lots boasted guarantees (when a seller has ‘presold’ the work to the auction house in exchange for a share of the upside) the sale performed well and will be a welcome respite to Christie’s after three months of frantic online sales which make some money but not enough, I believe, to sustain such a large corporate beast.  Barnett Newman’s ‘Onements V’ made 27m USD and was sold on the guarantee, as did Brice Marden’s ‘Complements’ which sold to the third-party buyer presale. Marden’s result was a world record and one that I find hard to understand. The Marden exhibition with Gagosian in 2019 was a vast success last year but surely that market had become saturated? Obviously not, judging by that one presale bid.

There was a noticeable, and telling, ‘no sale’ in the Hong Kong portion of the sale: A Zao Wou-Ki painting, ‘21.10.63, 1963’ which was on the block at around 10m USD in Hong Kong. The work was not guaranteed so there would have been little loss to the house, but it was offered to a Chinese market that seems to be wary at present. Perhaps the tightening of Hong Kong restrictions, socially and financially, has led to a more conservative bidding climate in that city.

In London my favourite painting was one that also sold on the guarantee: Manolo Millares’ masterpiece from 1959 entitled ‘Cuadro 54’. It made 1.1m GBP but was stunning value in light of lesser works being sold by the likes of Soulages and de Stael for many times that price. I feel the Spanish post-war market is nearly ready for a boom. Artists like Millares, Tapies and Saura are the kinds of post-war heavyweights that the market should seriously consider in the coming years.

The Impressionist and Modern element of the sale held up thanks to a lovely Picasso ‘Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘F’)’ from the series he painted in 1955 and which sold for nearly 30m USD. Picasso is one modern master whose prices should hold firm, if there is a downturn. The importance of his work to a host of contemporary names (from Basquiat to Condo) makes him such a fundamental prop to the market.

Overall it seems that the impact of Covid-19 has had little impact, thus far, on the art market. These results saw high sell-through rates and heavy bidding across the two major earnings departments (albeit for a limited time as Christie’s plan to have solely one department for 20th century after the Summer). 

As ever, if you are considering a high value work of art please do use an advisor as there are numerous pitfalls that are very well hidden to the amateur.

Some interesting links are as follows:

Christie’s ONE

Sotheby’s June sale