LONDON—The London series of Impressionist and modern art held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s from June 21–23 realized £273.6 million ($437.8 million) against an estimate of £226 million/324 million. Ancillary sales at Christie’s South Kensington, which included the collection of the writer and former politician Jeffrey Archer, added another £6.6 million ($10.6 million), while a £3.5 million ($5.6 million) sale at Bonhams helped to bring an overall tally for the week of £284 million ($454.4 million). The series was the third highest for London, trailing the £298 million ($586.2 million) in June 2008 and the £303.4 million ($455 million) obtained last summer.
With good, fresh-to-the-market Impressionist paintings hard to find—the best was an unfinished, late Claude Monet water lily painting at Christie’s which failed to sell—modern art was the driving force with Pablo Picasso at the helm, as he had been in New York in May.
What was noticeable was that the buy-in rates at the evening sales, 6 percent at Sotheby’s and 13 percent at Christie’s much longer sale, were historically very low. When it came to the lower-value day sales, buy-in rates soared to 32 percent at Sotheby’s and 25 percent at Christie’s. At the Archer sale, where there were a lot of minor works on paper, the unsold rate rose to nearer 50 percent.
Having lagged far behind the Impressionist and modern art market during 2010, contemporary art is catching up again and London’s contemporary art sales, held from June 27–30, brought £236.6 million ($378.6 million), on an estimate of £170 million/240 million, an increase of 102 percent compared with last summer. In spectacular fashion, Sotheby’s achieved the highest total for a single contemporary art auction, outside New York, of £109 million ($174 million) with its evening sale on June 29.
The series of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions thus totalled £516.2 million ($825.9 million), the third highest on record for London, just a fraction behind the £520 million ($1 billion) achieved in February 2008.
In the contemporary sales, figurative painting, though not necessarily in the conventional sense, was in the ascendant. Among the top prices at Christie’s were: £18 million ($28.7 million) for a darkly ominous painting by Francis Bacon that was bought by a Russian buyer; £6.2 million ($9.9 million) for a painting by Scottish artist Peter Doig that was bought by a U.S. buyer (see separate story, page 8); and £4 million ($6.3 million) for a work by Spanish artist, Miquel Barceló that sold to a European buyer.
At Sotheby’s, work by European artists, particularly German art from the collection of Count Duerckheim, eclipsed the American art on offer. Records tumbled for these German new wave paintings of the 1960s—satirical, expressive and fundamentally figurative—that included a Sigmar Polke work, Dschungel (Jungle), that sold for £5.7 million ($9.2 million) to a European buyer and a painting by Georg Baselitz, Spekulatius, that sold for £3.2 million ($5.2 million) to New York dealer William Acquavella. Much of this, though classified as “contemporary,” was in fact historic, dating from the 1950s and 60s, by artists now of the older generation or no longer living.
Here, alarm bells should be ringing in the British government’s corridors of power. Next year, the European Union is scheduled to implement part two of the Droit de Suite in Britain (part one applied to living European artists only) effectively taxing British sales of works by European artists who have died in the last seventy years.
Were it in operation during these sales, it would have applied to eight out of the top 20 selling contemporary art works (e.g Bacon, Polke, Lucio Fontana) and eleven out of the top 20 selling Impressionist and modern art works (e.g Picasso, Joan Miro and Rene Magritte).
The tax already exists in mainland Europe, but not in the UK or outside Europe, and Britain has one last chance in October to persuade the E.U. that the tax benefits would heavily favor a small number of already-wealthy families, but could further divert sales away from Europe, affecting all the ancillary economies, such as tourism, that thrive on a healthy art trade. The French, who at one point looked to be supporting the British in the interests of the European market as a whole, now appear to be backtracking. If the British art trade’s fears prove to be founded, this summer’s fortnight of sales might just have been the last great British sales bonanza of modern and contemporary art.