On Wednesday, Sotheby’s staged its first sale dedicated to Surrealist art. Held at the house’s Paris headquarters, the sale was a success, bringing in €33 million ($36.7 million) with premium, across 23 lots. The auction saw a near-perfect sell-through rate, with only one lot unsold, and achieved a total hammer price of €27.1 million ($30.1 million), narrowly surpassing its €26.3 million ($29.2 million).
The sale comes as a new level of attention is paid to Surrealism, which will be one of the primary focuses of the 2022 Venice Biennale, scheduled to take place this April in Italy.
At auction, Surrealist art has been rising in value alongside steady demand, with Christie’s having dedicated auctions to the movement since 2001, initially under the aegis of specialist Olivier Camu. But as of late, the market for the movement has only grown stronger. Earlier this month, René Magritte’s painting L’empire des lumières sold for £59.4 million ($79.8 million) at Sotheby’s, setting a new record for the Belgian Surrealist.
At Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday, the top lot was Francis Picabia’s Pavonia (1929), a painting from the “Transparencies” series, in dreamlike scenes are populated overlapping outlined bodies of men and women. Pavonia was commissioned by French art dealer Léonce Rosenberg, who is known for having supporting the Cubists before they grew famous. After competing with five other bidders for the work, a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s European chairman of contemporary art, Claudia Dwek, won the painting for a hammer price of €8.5 million ($7.7 million). With premium, the painting made €10 million ($11 million), minting a new auction record for Picabia, whose previous milestone stood at $8.8 million. That sum was paid for Volucelle II (1922) at Sotheby’s in 2013.
Other works that fetched high prices during the sale did so without far exceeding their expectations. The second-highest price achieved during the sale was set when a blue and white wooden relief by Hans Arp from 1928 made its auction debut. L’O et l’U de l’oiseau sold for €3.4 million ($3.8 million), hammering at €2.7 million ($3.8 million), below its €3 million ($3.3 million) estimate. Another work by Picabia, Nu de dos (1942), depicting a seated nude woman with her back toward the viewer, sold for €3.3 million ($3.6 million).
Three works by Magritte placed among the auction’s top lots. Le paysage fantôme, one of the earliest word paintings the artist ever produced, surpassed its high estimate, going for €2.2 million ($2.4 million). Le bon temps, a 1966 collage featuring the artist’s signature bowler-hatted figure, sold for €1.3 million ($1.4 million). La Joconde (Mona Lisa), a large-scale bronze sculpture depicting curtains that the artist produced for the storied dealer Alexandre Iolas, went for a total price of €1.7 million ($1.9 million).
The winning buyer of Le bon temps was Greek financier Dimitri Mavrommatis, according to the Baer Faxt, an art industry newsletter. Mavormmatis already owns significant works by artists affiliated with the Surrealist movement, among them Joan Miró and Max Ernst.
The story of Surrealism has primarily been told through male artists, and women involved in the movement are finally getting recognition, both in institutions and on the market. Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday continued that trend. Dorothea Tanning’s black and orange abstraction Mêlées nocturnes (1958) went for €567,000 ($621,000), surpassing its €300,00 ($326,000) estimate. Leonor Fini’s 1954 portrait of a hybrid female figure, titled Sphinx for David Barrett, went for €119,700 ($131,100). The price was more than double the €50,000 ($54,000) estimate.