Sotheby’s staged its marquee British and Modern Art sales today in London. The back-to-back sales led by Sotheby’s veteran auctioneers Oliver Barker and Helena Newman made £156.2 million ($217 million) combined across 83 lots, landing within the pre-sale estimate £119.7 million-£170.3 million ($165.8 million–$235.9 million) and seeing an 88 percent sell-through rate.
The result was up 12 percent from last June’s $193 million “Rembrandt to Richter” sale in London, where the auction house first debuted its hybrid auction model combining works ranging from Old Masters to works made in the last few years. Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, described the series as “a heady mix of the best of the physical and the virtual—a kind of top flight auction 2.0” in a statement following the sale.
Leading the British modern art portion of the sale was a portrait of David Hockney by Lucian Freud from 2002 that went for £14.9 million ($20.7 million) with buyer’s premium. Five phone bidders from New York, London and Asia competed for the guaranteed work. After a 10-minute long bidding war, the hammer eventually fell at £12.8 million ($17.7 million), just above its £12 million ($16.6 million) high estimate. The small work went to a collector based in London bidding on the phone with Sotheby’s London contemporary art specialist James Sevier. The portrait is now the sixth-most expensive work by Freud to ever sell at auction.
A group of 21 works were consigned by the New York-based Speyer Family Trust, comprising the holdings of New York real estate mogul and former Museum of Modern art chairman Jerry I. Speyer, who appeared on ARTnews’s Top 200 collectors list in 2020. Among the works were examples by Elizabeth Peyton, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, which were estimated to sell for £23 million ($32 million). The group came to the sale with a guarantee and accounted for half of all the guaranteed works on offer. Together the Speyer works brought in £28.2 million ($39.7 million), making up 18 percent of the total for the evening.
One of the sale’s top lots was Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract painting Tensions calmées (1937). It last sold at auction in 1964 at a Sotheby’s sale of 50 Kandinsky paintings from the collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim for £10,000. Since then, it had remained in the same private American family collection. On Tuesday, it realized £21.2 million ($29.5 million) with buyer’s premium this week, meeting its $25 million high estimate.
Filling out the top sellers was Pablo Picasso’s vibrant late-period double-figure portrait Homme et femme au bouquet (1970), which is said to be an image of the artist and his last wife Jacqueline Roque. It attracted attention among two bidders in Asia, with the hammer falling at a price of £8 million ($11.1 million), below the low £8 million estimate, to Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong’s bidder. The final price was £9.4 million ($13 million). The buyer on the phone with Wong, bidding with paddle number 164, went on to snatch up another two works by Edgar Degas depicting nude bathers for a collective £4.62 million ($6.4 million) with buyer’s premium.
A medium-sized untitled Cy Twombly painting from 1964 made of oil, wax, crayon, and graphite on canvas sold for an above-estimate hammer price of £6.6 million ($9.2 million) and a final price of £7.8 million ($9.2 million). It attracted bids from New York and London, eventually going to a buyer on the phone with Sotheby’s senior director of international business development Alina Davey.
Two works by Andy Warhol generated some of the day’s top sales. The Pop master’s silkscreen on linen work Front and back dollar bills (1962) sold for £6.6 million ($9.2 million) with premium at a below estimate hammer price of £5.7 million ($7.9 million). Another silkscreen on canvas by Warhol titled 9 Gold Marilyns from 1980 went for a hammer price of £5.5 million ($7.6 million). The result is a loss from its previous auction price of $9.1 million achieved during a Phillips New York contemporary art evening sale in 2013. Tuesday’s result is closer to, but still lower than, the $7.9 million it sold for in its first appearance at auction in 2011 at Phillips.
Bidding was largely tame as a large portion of the sales’ lots were secured with guarantees. As a result, just one auction record was set during both sales, when Dame Magdalene Odundo’s ceramic vase from 1986 sold for a final price of £378,000 ($524,900), more than four times its £60,000 ($83,000) estimate. Another lot that saw active bidding was Frank Auerbach’s portrait of art critic Robert Hughes, which the artist completed while Hughes was writing a monograph on Auerbach. The work sold for £302,400 ($419,882), three times the £100,000 ($138,490) low estimate.
Another top consignor to surface in Tuesday’s sale was Swiss winery magnate Donald Hess. Hess’s black-mirrored four-panel work by Gerhard Richter from 1992, which he has owned for three decades, ultimately failed to attract attention leading up to the sale. Slated with a pre-sale low estimate of £1.2 million ($1.66 million) it was withdrawn before the start of the second sale.