After Christie’s £168 million ($230 million) 20th century art sale in London on Tuesday, Sotheby’s staged a now-familiar cross-category mix of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art on Thursday, allowing for an Old Master or two to be thrown in and for them to stretch the sale title to “Modern Renaissance.” Sotheby’s was the shorter sale, though. Comprising 47 lots with a pre-sale estimate of £66.6 million–£93 million ($92 million–$128 million), it came out near the top end, at £96.9 million ($132.6 million). (Sold prices include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.) Last year, the equivalent sales for Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art at Sotheby’s London comprised 80 lots, which sold for £141.5 million ($194.7 million).
Two of the top lots going into the sale were by Edvard Munch, who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Both left the hands of Jewish owners during World War II before being sold and entered the collection of Norway’s well-known Olsen family, the current consignor. The original owner, industrialist Thomas Olsen, was a friend and patron of the artist, owning 30 works by Munch at the time of his death. Those works were inherited by his two sons Fred and Petter Olsen, who were at the center of a legal dispute around the estate that was settled in 2001.
In 2006, Fred sold two Munchs, including the Linde Frieze, at Sotheby’s in London, where they fetched a collective £23 million ($31.7 million). It’s possible that the buyer in 2006 was Petter, as the ghostly lakeside painting reappeared in yesterday’s auction with a £9 million–£12 million ($12.4 million–$16.5 million) estimate. Four bidders, from London, New York and Hong Kong, vied for the painting, which was one of eight guaranteed lots in the sale. This time, it realized a reasonable return over the 15-year holding period at an above-estimate £16.3 million ($22.4 million), and was won by the Hong Kong bidder.
Another Munch from the Olsen collection, Self Portrait with Palette (1926), has not been on the market since 1939, when Thomas bought it at auction in Oslo for 15,000 Norwegian krone. Estimated at £4.5 million–£6.5 million ($6.2 million–$9 million), it had less popular appeal than the frieze and was met with subdued bidding from New York, selling below estimate for £4.3 million ($5.9 million).
Two other top lots in the sale came from a London-based Israeli collector. The first was David Hockney’s unconventionally arranged six-part landscape Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge), 2017, bought from Pace Gallery the following year. Estimated at £6.5 million–£8.5 million ($9 million–$11.7 million), it was guaranteed and appeared to sell to the guarantor for £7.3 million ($10 million). Another was Picasso’s 1941 portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1941). Estimated at £6.5 million–£8.5 million ($9 million–$11.7 million), it hammered above the low estimate and the guarantee, to a buyer on the phone with Asia chairman, Patti Wong, on a bid of £9.4 million ($12.9 million).
Just barely ranking among the top five lots was the Renaissance 15th-century Portrait of Youth by Piero del Pollaiuolo, which was estimated at £4 million–£6 million ($5.5 million–$8.2 million). It was sold by modern art dealer Thomas Gibson, who also parted with a small collection of modern drawings at Sotheby’s in New York earlier in the month; they sold for $25.3 million. Gibson bought the portrait at Christie’s in 1985, when it was attributed to the lesser-known artist Cosimo Roselli, for £91,800 ($126,300). (Its current attribution to Pollaiuolo has been disputed by some.) Gibson was selling it on behalf of his children, one of whom, Hugh, took over his father’s namesake Gallery in 2015.
Sotheby’s said this was the only known portrait by the artist in private hands, and was once in Thomas Merton’s collection, which also included the $92 million Botticelli painting that was sold by the house earlier this year. The last time a Pollaiuolo portrait appeared on the open market was in 2012, when a 1470 drawing of a young man sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, against an estimate of $300,000. The buyer was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting offered on Thursday, however, seemed to suffer from the attribution doubts and elicited only one bidder, who took it home at £4.6 million ($6.3 million), a record nonetheless.
The sale was thin on Impressionists—the earlier Paris sale had the better selection—but there were some modern and postwar gems. A rare early architectural painting from 1922 by the Czech modernist František Kupka, Le Jaillissement II (Tryskání II), was the subject of a three-way bidding battle before selling for a triple estimate £7.55 million ($10.4 million), a record price for the artist.
As at Christie’s, postwar Parisians had a significant presence, with period classics by Jean Dubuffet, Wols, and Jean Fautrier playing starring roles. Following Christie’s record-setting sale of a Fautrier for £4.5 million ($6.2 million), two determined bidders—one through Europe chairman Helena Newman; another, presumably German, through senior director Martin Klosterfelde—went for Corps d’otage (1943–44), a smaller but still rare work from the “otage” series, leaving the £500,000 ($688,000) estimate way behind until it sold for £3.1 million ($4.3 million) to Klosterfelde’s bidder.
Tthe top Surrealist work here was by an American, Arshile Gorky, whose Garden in Sochi (ca. 1941), signed after the artist’s death in 1948 by his widow, elicited significant interest. The vibrant, playful composition was subject to strong bidding from two American phone bidders before selling for a triple-estimate—though not record-breaking—£8.6 million ($11.8 million).
It was also a sale that allowed for a couple of cameos by artists not usually included in the international category. Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977) was the first work by Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess to be included in a modern and contemporary sale (as opposed to a Middle Eastern one). Coming from the artist’s estate and bearing the influence of both Goya and the Surrealists, it was a museum-quality work that attracted bidding from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere before selling for a double-estimate record of £1 million ($1.4 million).
A lone work by a modern British artist was a sensuous 1924 carved sandstone female torso by the sculptor Frank Dobson. It was the biggest surprise of the sale. Although Dobson’s record since improved to reach £338,500 ($643,000) in 2005, nothing has approached that since. But on Thursday, with the auctioneer reminding viewers it had once belonged to Alberto Giacometti, the carving easily surpassed its unprecedented £250,000 ($344,000) estimate to sell to a client with Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department for £2.04 million ($2.8 million).
The contemporary art of the sale was comparatively unremarkable, even though there were works by Matthew Wong and Banksy. A digitally manipulated photograph of the Singapore Borse by the once-fashionable Andreas Gursky, which sold in 2013 for £421,250 ($660,000), was on Thursday auctioned at its low estimate, for £252,000 ($346,800). For YBA supporters, there were some unpromising results. Damien Hirst’s zebra in formaldehyde, Incredible Journey (2008), was purchased in 2008 at Sotheby’s during the the artist’s one-man sale “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” The guarantor was the only one in the game, buying the zebra for £570,000 ($784,000).
The Belvedere, a swanky restaurant near London’s Holland Park that closed for most of the pandemic, consigned a seven-foot diameter Damien Hirst butterfly collage, The Human Voice (2006) with a £600,000-£800,000 ($825,000-$1.1 million) estimate. According to the Artnet database, similar sized “Butterfly Grid” paintings have sold for as much as £1.3 million ($1.8 million)–but that was back in 2008. On Thursday, this visually arresting work sold to its lone U.S.-based bidder for £620,000 ($853,000).
This was a sale that emphasized the values of significant and previously undervalued modern artists—Fautrier, Kupka, and Dobson—and acted as a reminder of the brevity of bull markets for the new and fashionable.