ARTnewsletter Archive

Cautiously Upbeat Mood Ahead of London Sales

Heading into the major sales of Impressionist, modern, and Postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company in London next month (Feb. 2–13), the mood is one of cautious optimism, with consignor confidence undoubtedly given a boost by the strong prices realized at the New York auctions last fall.

LONDON—Heading into the major sales of Impressionist, modern, and Postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company in London next month (Feb. 2–13), the mood is one of cautious optimism, with consignor confidence undoubtedly given a boost by the strong prices realized at the New York auctions last fall. Instead of waiting to see how far the market has fallen from last year, observers are now more focused on gauging the degree to which the art market has stabilized and whether it is regaining its strength.

By all accounts, gathering good-quality works for these February sales has been easier than it was last year, and though estimates for such artists as Andy Warhol and Richard Prince are still significantly lower than they were during the market boom, overall values are up. For the Postwar and contemporary sales, this year’s London series is expected to bring in at least £83million ($135million), almost double the amount the contemporary auctions brought in this time last year and just short of the £89.7 million achieved in February 2006.

The total estimate for the Impressionist and modern sales has risen to £150million/200million ($243million/325million) from £126million ($185million) last year. If the upcoming auctions in this category make their overall low estimate, they will have returned to the sales levels of the February 2006 season; if they hit the high estimate, they’ll be closer to the level of February 2007, when the number of lots on offer peaked at 1,200.

Although estimates are up, one thing that has remained consistent with last year’s Impressionist and modern sales is the number of lots Sotheby’s and Christie’s officials expect the market will bear. After a total of 950 lots was offered in February 2008, the number of lots fell to 500 last year, and will remain roughly the same next month. One factor that will be crucial to the success of this year’s Impressionist series is Sotheby’s offering of three works that are estimated to sell for £10million ($16million) or more each. As ARTnews­letter was published, the works were on view for the public and potential buyers at the house’s New York headquarters.

The Magic Number

That ­confidence-boosting number of £10million has proved somewhat elusive since the economic downturn. It took Sotheby’s all of last year to make three £10million sales. The presence of three works estimated to sell at that level in a single sale indicates that 2010 may be starting out with a significant improvement in the quality of supply and a return of confidence among sellers of works at that level.

Last November, at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern sales in New York, L’homme qui chavire, 1950, a rare, two-foot-tall painted sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, doubled its estimate to sell for $19.3million. That result could only have encouraged the German Commerzbank, owners of L’homme qui marche I, 1960, an equally rare six-foot-tall bronze by Giaco­metti, to consign it for sale at Sotheby’s on Feb. 3, where it will bear an estimate of £12million/18million ($19million/29million), in line with that recent price.

Sotheby’s second blockbuster lot is Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like Church in Cassone (Landscape with Cypresses), 1913, a view of the village on Lake Garda in Italy, which is also estimated at £12million/18million ($19million/29million). The work has been the subject of lengthy negotiations between its present owner, an Austrian who acquired it in 1962, and Georges Jorisch, the heir of a previous owner from whom it was allegedly stolen by the Nazis. Its finally coming to auction had depended on the terms of the settlement, which were kept confidential, being hammered out.

The third eight-figure lot is Pichet et fruits sur une table, 1893–94, a still life by Paul Cézanne, which set a record when it sold for $11.55million (£7 million) to a Japanese buyer in 1989. It is estimated to sell next week for £10million/15million ($16 million/24 million). However, when it was offered at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2001, it failed to sell on a $14million/20million estimate.

Sotheby’s officials are hoping to take in at least £80million ($130million) in the Impressionist and modern sales next month, nearly double the amount the house realized last February.

Christie’s, on the other hand, is strong in the £1million/5million ($1.6million/8million) range, and officials hope for a performance on par with last year’s £82.5million ($118.5million) series. Taken together, the two houses should show a gain over last year’s results, but much of that gain will hinge on Sotheby’s big three.

High Expectations for Freud Self-Portrait

Among the highlights of Sotheby’s Postwar and contemporary auction on Feb. 10 is Lucian Freud’s Self-Portrait with a Black Eye, ca. 1978, made after an altercation with a taxi driver left the artist with a bruised and swollen left eye. The life-size painting, which has been in a private collection for 30 years, has never been exhibited or reproduced before, and is being hailed by the auction house as a major rediscovery. At £3million/4million ($4.9million/6.5million), it will be the ­highest-estimated lot in Sotheby’s evening sale.

The anonymous owner has also consigned four other works by Freud in the evening sale. The collection is estimated to sell for a total of £4.8million/6.5million ($7.8million/10.5million). Chey­enne Westphal, Sotheby’s European chairman of contemporary art, said, “There have not been any Freuds at auction for over a year, and we advised the owner that we feel the market is now ready for a group like this.”

At the time the self-portrait was painted, the highest price paid for a work by the artist was about $30,000. By 2008, the record for Freud had risen to $33.6million, paid for Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, at Christie’s in New York in May of that year, reportedly by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (ANL, 5/27/08).

It remains to be seen what effect the recession has had on demand for works by Freud—who is considered a blue-chip contemporary artist—or whether the market will agree with Sotheby’s assessment that the market is ripe for a group of the artist’s works. Estimates and prices for other ­top-selling artists associated with the recent art-market boom—such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami—have been considerably lower since the market downturn.

Christie’s star lot in the contemporary series is Relief éponge or (RE 47 II), 1961, a rare composition of sea sponges covered in gold leaf by Yves Klein, the enfant terrible of the art world in the ’50s and early ’60s, which is estimated at £5million/7million ($8million/11.3million).

The record price for a work by Klein is $23.6million (£12million), paid by Christie’s owner François Pinault at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2008 for MG 9, ca. 1962, a gold monochrome painting. Christie’s is relying on the rarity of this sponge relief (only two were made in gold) and the inherent desirability of the precious metal to attract bidders.