The evening sales in London wrapped with the Defining British Art Evening Sale, a curated auction of masterpieces by English artists from the last three centuries that delivered a haul of £99.5 million ($133.2 million). The sell-through rate of 87 percent by lot and 83 percent by value did not quite match the stellar quotients from earlier in the week, and unlike the contemporary evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, it did not beat its high estimate, which was far away at £138.2 million ($183.9 million). In fact it barely got past its low estimate of £95.7 million ($127.4 million).
And yet the auction brought with it the first real fireworks of the week, with a trio of works that sold in the mid eight figures: John Constable’s View on the Stour Near Dedham, Full-Scale Sketch (1821–22) for £14.1 million ($18.9 million), Francis Bacon’s Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1968) for £20.2 million ($27.1 million), and Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure: Festival (1951) for £24.7 million ($33.1 million), marking a new record for the artist at auction, and a record for any British sculpture.
Intriguingly, the sale’s top two lots were bought by the same collector, who was on the phone with Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art. When taking into account a £1.4 million ($1.9 million) work by Bridget Riley that was picked up on the same paddle, this one collector had snapped up £46.3 ($61.6 million) in work after just eight lots. A representative from Christie’s said there was no further information available regarding the identity of the collector.
The auction also witnessed a new auction record for Riley, as one of her works sold for £4.3 million ($5.8 million) late in the sale, as well as records for Frederic, Lord Leighton and Frank Auerbach.
The highlights provided some buffer for the major disappointment that was to come, when Lucian Freud’s Id and Her Husband (1992) failed to find a buyer. Christie’s had featured the work prominently in its publicity materials prior to the sale, and with the pass, the auction took a big hit: the on-request estimate was £18 million ($24 million).
The sale was meant to tie in with the house’s extensive celebrations surrounding its 250th anniversary, and global chairman Jussi Pylkkanen, who was serving as gavel-wielder for the night, peppered the sale banter with nifty factoids about a lot’s relationship with Christie’s; often, the painting had already been on offer at the King Street sale room, albeit 100 years ago.
And the timing of a British-centric historical sale was a little too apt, given that the nation is currently undergoing an existential struggle and political unraveling thanks to the Brexit vote. This, and perhaps impending Independence Day festivities across the pond, seemed to be on Pylkkanen’s mind as he goaded the Christie’s specialists to go one higher.
When the house’s deputy chairman, Maria Los, made a late entry into the bidding on the Moore with a £20 million ($26.6 million) offer, Pylkkanen said, “Maria Los, a flight from New York, and here you are! Could it be going back to America?”
(Pylkkanen also, at one point, derided one specialist who made an offer of a smaller-than-usual increase in the bidding, saying, “Oh, American bidding, these £250,000 increments.”)
Once the final lot found a buyer, applause broke out in the house, marking an end to a successful spate of London auctions held in the gloomy specter of economic and political turmoil.