On Tuesday, Sotheby’s wrapped the summer auction season with its inaugural cross-category sale comprising works by Old Masters, modern masters, and contemporary artists, under the title “Rembrandt to Richter.” The sale comes on the heels of the auction house’s successful $363 million live-streamed auction. The strength of Sotheby’s 95 percent sell-through rate for the 62 lots that found buyers was due, in part, to the strategic withdrawal of a few key lots and Sotheby’s careful management of the sale. Success was also helped by long holding periods of the works of art on offer and the bidding interest of prominent dealers. Sotheby’s second hybrid auction brought in a total of £149.7 million ($192.7 million), against a pre-sale estimate of £108.2 million–£155.5 million ($139.3 million–$200.1 million) with 50 percent of the sales lots reaching past their high estimates. Sotheby’s representatives said the event drew a total of 150,000 viewers from the firm’s online channels.
Works by Joan Miró, Rembrandt, and Gerard Richter led the London auction. Auction records were set for Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello, French sculptor Henri Laurens, and British painter Cedric Morris. Before the sale began, five lots were withdrawn, with another added to the total of six by sale’s end. The withdrawal of Francis Bacon’s 1986 portrait of close friend and heir John Edwards was the biggest disappointment of the evening auction, as it was estimated to fetch between £12 million–£18 million ($15.5 million–$23.3 million).
The advantage of the sale—besides its roster of coveted artists hailing from top collections—was that bidders had become acclimated to the new virtual auction format. Auctioneer Oliver Barker kicked off the three-and-a-half-hour-long sale with an opening address on Sotheby’s view of the future that “has come sooner than we thought.” Like its modern and contemporary counterpart sale, held on June 29, the auction focused more on the specialists bidding for clients over the phone instead of the charismatic auctioneer. But this time, Sotheby’s did more than reverse the normal auction theater. The auction house invited into the London sale room 20 masked clients seated at small tables to provide an atmosphere of a live sale. To further spice up the visuals, specialist Brooke Lampley wore a borrowed diamond necklace that will feature in a future jewelry sale and Barker got to briefly sport a Rolex Daytona in the coveted Paul Newman style that will also eventually star in another auction.
Beyond the marketing gimmicks, the sale featured 18 works from a single family collection which grossed £47 million ($61.3 million.) Those works were hardly the only ones noted for their freshness to the market: 65 percent of the sale was completely new to auction. Ten works were guaranteed, a small number for a sale of this size but perhaps as much an indication of the number of Modern and Old Master works rather than the confidence fo the sellers.
“It’s really appropriate that the sale was led from an Old Masters perspective by someone as modern as Rembrandt,” said Andrew Fletcher, of the Old Master and British Paintings department, in a press conference following the sale. Fletcher cited the multiple instances in which cross-departmental bids came in with contemporary and modern collectors vying for top old masters lots. “This sale broke down every barrier you could imagine” said Fletcher.
The top lot was a Joan Miró abstraction from his seminal series of dream paintings, Peinture Femme au Chapeau Rouge, which came from the collection of American investor Ron Perelman, who acquired the work from Zurich dealer Thomas Amman in the late 1980s. Carrying the highest estimate of the group and the most valuable Miró to come to the market, the guaranteed work endured an 11 minute bidding period with clients represented by Sotheby’s sale heads, Helena Newman and Julian Dawes. It eventually sold for £22.3 million ($28.7 million). The hammer price just eked above the low estimate of £20 million–£30 million ($25.9 million–$38.8 million.) Perelman’s second lot, Henri Matisse’s portrait of an Italian countess dressed as a dancer, held privately since 1989, significantly under-performed. It hammered at £5.5 million, well below its pre-sale estimate of £8 million. The final premium price was £6.5 million ($8.4 million). Some collectors had noticed the 1943 provenance of French dealer Martin Fabiani (who has been associated with Nazi-looted art), but Sotheby’s experts insist the lumpy Matisse market was more to blame and believe the same work would have made twice as much a decade ago. Changing taste is a much a factor in the art market as restitution concerns might be.
Early in the sale, Marc Chagall’s dreamy interior hammered at £1.6 million ($2.1 million), above its pre-sale estimate of £900,000 ($1.2 million), after a protracted bidding battle between New York and London. Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau landscape, held privately for more than two decades, drew few bids hammering at its low estimate of £1 million ($1.3 million). Bids for Pablo Picasso’s 1931 drawing of his famed resting muse, Femme Endormie lingered around the low estimate of £6 million ($7.8 million), before driving the selling price to £7.3 million ($9.5 million).
The leading lot of the Old Masters offering was a small-scale Rembrandt self-portrait as a wealthy figure last sold at the house in 1970 for £650 before its official attribution as a Rembrandt. The guaranteed work, just 8 5/8 inches by 6 3/8 inches last sold by Old Masters Dutch dealer Robert Noortman in 2005 to Monaco-based Dutch businessman Louis Reijtenbagh. The work sold against a pre-sale value of $12 million to $16 million. Just as Barker put his hammer down, Brooke Lampley called out a bid. The ploy drove the price up to £12.6 million which lingered as Barker teased “a once in a generation opportunity.” But Lampley’s bidder was unable to go the distance and the work sold to the head of Sotheby’s Old Masters department in New York, Christopher Apostle, whose bidder bought it for £14.6 million ($18.8 million). The price was a record for a self-portrait by the artist.
Italian Renaissance master Paolo Uccello’s rare 15th-century cassone panel was recently restituted to the heirs of persecuted German banker Fritz Gutmann (the work was one of three total restituted works to go up for sale in the auction). Bids escalated rapidly among clients represented by non–Old Masters specialists, which Barker was quick to note. Bidding drove the final hammer price up to £2 million called out by impressionist Department Head Helena Newman. The work sold for four times its low estimate, realizing £2.4 million ($3.1 million) with buyer’s fees. Another work, a Dresden landscape by Bellotto, restituted to the heirs of Max Emden, was sold for £5.4 million ($7 million), well above the £3 million–£4 million estimate.
An Alberto Giacometti sculpture drew more than 30 bids, hammering at £9.2 million over its high estimate of £6 million and realizing a selling price of £10.7 million ($13.9 million). French sculptor Henri Lauren’s 1920 stone relief work Le Boxeur bested its estimate of £350,000, selling for a knock-out price of £2.1 million ($2.7 million). The rare work went to a bidder working with Lisa Denison, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America; it set a new benchmark for the artist.
Among the leading contemporary lots was Gerhard Richter’s four-part cloud painting, which sold for £10.4 million ($13.5 million), hammering around its low estimate of £9 million. Barbara Hepworth’s brass sculpture drew bids as soon as the work hit the block hammering far above its high estimate of £350,000 and realizing a selling price of £1.3 million. It was won by David Shrader’s telephone bidder. Carrying a guarantee, British artist Jenny Saville’s black and white portrait Stare III went for £3.1 million ($4 million), beating its high estimate of £2.8 million.
The final stage of the auction featured a 2017 self-portrait by Vienna-based painter Amoako Boafo. Coming in as the second to last lot of the night, Boafo’s portrait held its own against a pre-sale estimate of £80,000–£120,000. Even with an irrevocable bidder, the work drew fast bids up to £190,00 ($245,903), where it hammered to a competing buyer on the phone. Works by David Hockney, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat saw less competition, failing to reach their high estimates.