Solid if muted bidding at the outset gave way to a slew of huge lots at Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesroom in London Friday night, bringing the contemporary art auction’s total to £47.9 million ($59.6 million), comfortably over its high estimate of £31.2 million ($39.7 million). The sell-through rate was a robust 91.2 percent by lot. It was a night when it seemed like there was a match for nearly every work on offer.
The sale completed a run of strong performances by auction houses during Frieze Week, where Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s all saw their postwar and contemporary evening sales achieve at least modest success—all but Phillips passed their pre-sale high estimates. The showing came at a time when Frieze London and Frieze Masters were mired in the economic instability brewing in the run-up to Brexit—although, that situation has sparked a rush on works sold in pounds, as the currency’s plummeting value allowed for deals to be had by non-Brits.
There were no significant artist records Friday at Sotheby’s, unlike Thursday’s postwar and contemporary sale at Christie’s, which saw six artists eclipse their previous all-time high. The night’s one record was for Michael Krebber, whose untitled work from 1997 opened the sale, at which point more than ten bidders in the room and on the phones jumped for the work, allowing it to quickly fly past his previous artist record of £98,500 ($150,106), which was set at Christie’s London in September 2013. It sold to a bidder in the room for £191,000 ($237,318).
Tonight’s sale at Sotheby’s had two eight-figure sales, a digit count not reached this week at either of the other houses. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Hannibal (1982)—which is mounted on warped wooden supports tied to the canvas, making it look rather raw when installed behind the pulpit in the posh Mayfair salesroom—sold to a phone bidder for £10.6 million ($13.1 million). That’s more than double the high estimate for the work, which was £4.5 million ($5.6 million).
When auctioneer Oliver Barker slammed the hammer on the Basquiat, it put to bed an extended series of bids via phone and in the room. At one point, there were several paddles popping up here in London, including that of Stefan Simchowitz—it was the first lot he bid on that night, after going on a £7.4 million ($9.3 million) spending spree the night before at Christie’s. After a certain threshold, Simchowitz dropped out, though that didn’t stop Barker from playfully checking in with him from time to time during the bidding on the Basquiat. (Simchowitz did manage to snag Sigmar Polke’s Spirale (1985) for £2.6 million, about $3.2 million, two lots later.)
This left Sotheby’s specialists Stefan Puttaert and Tom Heaven to brawling for the big prize, and they batted back and forth until Puttaert emerged victorious with a hammer at £9.3 million.
The most thrilling lot of the night was the auction’s other eight-figure sale, Gerhard Richter’s Garten (1982), which sold for £10.2 million ($12.7 million), nearly tripling its high estimate. Things started off quietly, with Barker fishing around for offers in the £2.5 million ($3.1 million) range, before bidding became concentrated on two specialists, Sam Valette and Alex Branczik, who stood a few feet away from each other on the front riser, with the massive day-glo Garten staring back at both of them from the end of the room. Eyes on the prize, they started inching each other higher, first in the range of £4.7 million, before quickly rising to £5.4 million, just the two of them. As the price got higher and higher—the elapsed time of the lot stretching from three minutes, to five minutes, to nearly ten minutes—the salesroom’s whispers morphed to gasps. Then it passed £8 million, caused Adam Chinn—executive vice president of worldwide transaction support at Sotheby’s and co-founder of Art Agency, Partners, which serves as the house’s brain trust—to bounce over to CEO Tad Smith and gleefully talk into his ear. And then, when Alex Branczik went to £9 million, executive vice president Amy Cappellazzo snapped her fingers with joy. Valette threw down the phone.
“That’s a very definitive sign, when the phone is down,” Barker said, and hammered at £9 million, to applause.
Before a defeated Valette walked out of the room with nearly 20 lots remaining in the evening sale, Barker reminded him that there will be plenty of works by Richter on offer when Sotheby’s auctions off the Steven and Ann Ames Collection on November 17 in New York.