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Sotheby’s Quells Fear of Brexit Slump With $69.6 M. Contemporary Sale in London, Sets Record With $9.1 M. Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville, Shift, 1996-1997.COURTESY SOTHEBY'S

Jenny Saville, Shift, 1996–97.

COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

With the markets in London in turmoil after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, a glimmer of hope arrived at the Sotheby’s Mayfair salesroom Tuesday evening. The contemporary art evening auction in London—a sale that some thought could collapse amidst Brexit hysteria and free-falling currency value—soared to a £52.2 million ($69.6 million) finish, beating the high estimate of £49.9 million ($66.4 million). With a solid sell-through rate of 89 percent by lot and 92 percent by value, and a healthy amount of bidding on the phones—often from non-British collectors looking to score deals due to the debilitated state of the pound—the impressive results did away with the jitters caused by a lackluster showing at Phillips last night, where 10 lots of out the 30 on offer failed to find buyers.

The highlight of the sale was a new auction record for Jenny Saville, whose work Shift (1996–97), soared past its high estimate of £2 million to sell for £6.8 million (about $9.1 million) with the buyer’s premium, shattering the previous record for the artist of $2.8 million. It was acquired by the Long Museum in Shanghai, China, which was founded by billionaire collector Liu Yiqian, who last year acquired Modigliani’s Nu couché and paid for the $170.4 million work with his American Express card. Shift will be featured in “She,” an exhibition of female artists that opens at the institution on July 27.

The sale also notched a new auction record for Keith Haring. The Last Rainforest (1989)—which came from the collection of artist and photographer David LaChapelle—sold to Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s co-head of the fine art division, for £4.2 million ($5.5 million) after a protracted back-and-forth with contemporary department chairman Gabby Palmieri. That was well above the work’s high estimate of £3 million ($4 million).

In addition to the Saville, the Long Museum also acquired Neo Rauch’s Gut Gut (1999) for £869,000 ($1.2 million).

The sale was buoyed by a wealth of bidding on nearly every lot, with the competing paddles pushing prices past high estimates with wowing frequency. Most of the action came from the phones, which is to be expected: with British and European buyers hit hard by the post-Brexit collapse of the pound, there was an opportunity for collectors from the Americas and Asia to swoop in and take advantage of the newly cut-rate prices created by the relative strength of their foreign currency.

Even when bids came from the room, they were often on behalf of a bidder on the other end of an iPhone. Such was the case during the final bidding for the Saville, as underbidder Larry Gagosian held on until the price hit £5.95 million, and then muttered into his iPhone that he was done.

“It’s unlike you to say no,” auctioneer Oliver Barker said to Gagosian, goading him to give another bid.

(Gagosian has a history with Saville’s Shift: he showed it in a three-work show at his gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea in the summer of 2005, and the buyer from that exhibition was the person who was selling the work at Sotheby’s.)

As it became clear that the sales was going to be a success, Barker affected a looser tone, and managed to riff amidst the bidding—even if, when a call was dropped for a few seconds, he killed time by saying, “If I had any good Brexit jokes, I’d tell them right away.” During the bidding of the Saville, for instance, he looked at the gigantic work, which was hanging right behind him, and said, “It’s good to see some British exports are still desirable.”

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