At its British modern art sale on March 1, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen remarked from a podium on King Street in London how much he missed being up there, wielding his gavel, albeit just to phone and internet bidders. In the previous nine months, he had only conducted four sales, two of which were shared with auctioneers in other locations, including the “ONE” sale in July, which he had to share with Hong Kong, Paris and New York.
Christie’s sale series on Tuesday was only his fifth outing in ten months, and he presided over it with his colleague Arlene Blankers, Christie head of decorative arts in London. There was an 82-lot mix of Impressionist, modern, Surrealist, postwar, and contemporary art, all subsumed under Christie’s revived 20th century art banner.
Because of the category mix and the inclusion of a $42 million Basquiat painting, Warrior, which was nominally sold from Hong Kong, the estimate of £88 million–£128 million ($120.5 million–$175.3 million, excluding the Basquiat) is perhaps conveniently difficult to compare with previous seasons. But as an indicator, last year’s first part of the house’s London sales series together made a total of £163 million ($224 million) for 95 lots sold. In Tuesday’s London sales, minus the Basquiat, a total of £168 million ($230 million) was realized across 75 lots sold, beating a £136 million ($186 million) low estimate.
Picasso, Banksy Top 20th Century Art Evening Sale
It was the contemporary art that was included in the sale that gave Pylkkanen his customary high-octane start. Following the $42 million Basquiat sold in Hong Kong, the sale started with a focus on contemporary women artists who have gained traction via museum and gallery shows. British-Nigerian figurative painter Joy Labinjo, who is represented by the Tiwani Contemporary gallery in London, which focusses on artists from Africa and its diaspora, made a dramatic impact on the market when the 27-year-old’s first work at auction, estimated at $10,000-$15,000, sold for $189,000 at Phillips last December. No Wahala (“No worries” in Nigerian Hausa), from 2019, was offered at Christie’s on Tuesday, becoming only the third work by her to appear at auction. Estimated at £30,000–£40,000 ($41,000–$55,000), it unsurprisingly sold for more, minting a new record of £150,000 ($206,000) after bidding from Thailand, New York and London.
This was immediately followed by the auction debut for artist-musician Issy Wood, who has garnered interest following a show at the X Museum in Beijing. Her large oil on velvet painting Over Armour had been given an estimate of £100,00–£150,000 ($137,000–$206,000)—an unusually high price for an auction first-timer—and it saw bidding from New York before, selling to a London phone bidder for £250,000 ($343,000).
Completing a trio of records for young female artists was Claire Tabouret’s 11-foot canvas The Last Day, featuring school children in fancy dress. (It was reminiscent of Marlene Dumas’s The Teacher, which Christie’s sold for £1.8 million in 2005.) The painting soared above its £150,000–£200,000 ($206,000–$274,000) estimate to hit a new record of £622,500 ($855,000).
The priciest living artist in the sale, though, was British incognito street artist Banksy, who was represented by a pandemic-themed painting, Game Changer. Originally given to Southampton University Hospital, the work depicts a boy playing with a toy nurse whose uniform is emblazoned with an iconic Red Cross symbol. Unusually tame in its aesthetic, it carried a social context and persuaded bidders, among them one from Thailand and another from the British Virgin Isles, a tax haven in the Caribbean, to let rip, selling for a record £16.8 million ($23 million)–the highest price of the day, surpassing works by Picasso and Magritte.
As a charity sale with the proceeds going to Britain’s National Health Service, it may have attracted extra bidding, and would also qualify for some tax relief for the buyer bidding through London’s head of sales, Tessa Lord.
The strength of bidding from Asia was notable, as it has been all last year, with Amoako Boafo’s his self-portrait selling for a price of £550,000 ($755,000), five times the estimate, to a Hong Kong bidder. Matthew Wong’s untitled landscape—the 32nd work by him to hit the block since last May—saw competition from 10 bidders before it sold to one of the many Hong Kong contenders for £2.7 million ($3.7 million).
The sales in the British capital are traditionally strong on School of London paintings, though that was less the case in this auction. The highest auction price since lockdown is still the $84 million paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, which Sotheby’s sold last year; it may have encouraged the European owner of a late Bacon work, a rare landscape by the artist called Sand Dune (1981), to try it at auction. That painting was included in a recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which travelled to Houston. Even with a fairly humble £5 million ($6.9 million) estimate, it sold to the guarantor on a single bid for just under the low estimate.
Other School of London painters in the sale were by close friends of Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Auerbach has always been more sought after in the market, but Kossoff, who died last year, has been closing the gap. Auerbach’s Head of Debbie Ratcliffe, guaranteed with a £450,000 ($618,000) estimate, struggled to hit that figure, selling for £562,500 ($773,000). Kossoff’s Here Comes the Diesel, Summer, formerly in the Saatchi collection, had sold for £682,500 ($938,000).
Overall, though, it was modern art that dominated. Coming in at the top of the sale were two works by Picasso from the collection of a Monaco-based seller. The cover lot of the catalogue was one of Picasso’s sumptuous 1932 nude paintings of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme Nue Couchee au Collier (Marie-Thérèse), which had a £9 million-£15 million estimate ($12 million-$20.6 million). The seller’s other consignment to the sale was a Picasso portrait of a later partner, Jacqueline Roque, Femme assise dans un fauteuil noir (1962). Back at auction today with nearly the same estimates as before, the Marie-Thérèse portrait sold close to its top estimate after competition between a bidder from Hong Kong against a buyer represented by London’s Giovanna Bertazzoni for £14.6 million ($20 million), and Jacqueline Femme assise painting went for a mid-estimate £9.7 million ($13.3 million).
Adding strength to the backbone of the modern section was a group of five works from a French collection by Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, and Fernand Léger, along with an American, Alexander Calder. The long-term growth of the Dubuffet market was evident from Paysage du Pays de Calais, III, a large 1963 work that bridges his classic Paris circus paintings with his next series, known as “hourloupes.” Last at auction in 1982, when it sold for $99,000, it has changed hands several times since, and was estimated at £2.5 million–£3.5 million ($3.5 million–$4.9 million). It sold after competition between two European bidders for a top-estimate £4 million ($5.5 million).
Hersaint’s Magritte Leads Surrealism Sale
Christie’s capped the sale series with an auction devoted to Surrealism—a fixture at the house under expert Olivier Camu for the last 20 years. Amazingly, in the midst of a pandemic, Camu rustled up 26 lots with a pre-sale estimate of £42 million–£64.2 million ($57 million–$88 million)– the highest pre-sale estimate in the sale’s history. The previous historic high total was £66.6 million, achieved in 2015, against an estimate of £37 million–£54 million ($50.8 million–$74 million).
In Tuesday’s sale, the total came in at £48.4 million ($66.5 million). (All prices reported here include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.) The top two lots by Magritte and Miró sold below estimates, both coming from the prestigious collection of Claude Hersaint, who died in 1993. The top lot by Magritte, a large 1959 canvas, had been bought at auction by Hersaint in Paris in 1963 for around £6,000 ($8,000) and was estimated at £10 million–£15 million ($13.7 million–$20 million), but it seemed Camu was the only person vying for it, winning it for his client with one bid of £10 million. Also from the Hersaint collection was an 1925 Miró painting with a £9 million–£14 million estimate ($12.3 million–$19.3 million). Camu again seemed stranded as the only bidder, as it sold for £10.2 million ($14 million). Perhaps the best return of the Surrealists, percentage-wise, was a 1970 illustration by Miro, which was purchased in 2008 for £16,250 ($22,000) and sold for £100,000 ($137,000).