On The Block: Middle Market Surges at Year’s Mid-Point | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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On The Block: Middle Market Surges at Year’s Mid-Point

“Figure on a Bed II,” 1967, Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931), Oil on board, 60 by 80 cm., 23 5/8 by 31 1/2 in., Sold for £ 1,448,750 inc. premium, Sale: Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale on 27 June 2018 in London
(Courtesy Bonhams)

If you are selling some art, looking for gains and good prices in the middle market, 2018 has been your year so far.

If you are a collector determined to buy an impressive Picasso painting for a sensible yet non-record sum, this has been your year, too. The London Contemporary and Modern art sales that took place in June ended the first half with plenty of lessons and pointers for the rest of 2018.

The summer auctions have long been an integral part of the British capital’s summer season, drawing a mix of celebrities, society figures and collectors. Yet the auctions have recently been going through more turmoil than the dependable attractions of Ascot, Derby, Wimbledon, Goodwood, Henley and Glyndebourne.

The drama started in 2017, when Christie’s decided to drop its Post-War and Contemporary summer auction in London. It moved works to its gargantuan Frieze Week extravaganza in October. This left the stage clear for Sotheby’s in particular. It looked like the calendar event was getting squeezed out by art fairs and buyer exhaustion, though some dealers whispered that perhaps it was a sign that post-Brexit London was losing some of its luster as a global sales hub. Others disputed this, saying a weaker pound actually made it more attractive for overseas buyers.

This time, Christie’s staged a return of sorts, with two smaller contemporary day sales of lots mainly for less than £100,000 ($132,000), less than the price level of Sotheby’s. Along with the results from Phillips and Bonhams, the demand was enough to test the water and prove that even out-of-season demand is there for lots that meet a key list of criteria. As ever, lots that do best tick as many of these boxes as possible: they are fresh to the market and therefore not flipped; they have impeccable providence; they are of good or museum quality and have sensible estimates.

One such leading work was Lucian Freud’s “Portrait on a White Cover” at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale in London on June 27.

In 2002, Freud, then nearly 80 years old, spotted Sophie Lawrence, who worked for Tate Publishing, as they prepared for his retrospective show. Despite her reluctance, the artist persuaded her to pose for him. The resulting reclining nude sold for £22.5 million ($29.8 million) with fees, against a hammer-price estimate of £17 million to £20 million. The guaranteed lot was the subject of a bidding battle in the saleroom and on the telephones. Its final price was a record for any work by the artist in London. It still had some way to go to catch the $56.2 million for “Benefits Supervisor Resting” (1994) at Christie’s in New York in 2015, but it surpassed the $33.6 million (£17.2 million) for “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” in 2008. Freud is up there with fellow British painters Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Some questions remain whether Peter Doig will join them. In 2018, Doig has had strong prices and other weak figures where lots are flipped too aggressively.

Equally noteworthy was the success of three Jean-Michel Basquiat works in the Sotheby’s sale. The trio was led by an untitled painting from the artist’s 1982 breakthrough year. It sold for £14.7 million, almost double its lower estimate of £7.5 million.

Continued rising prices of most well estimated Basquiat works have been one of the stories of the year. The 97 percent sold rate helped Sotheby’s sale take in a total £125.3 million, in line with its high estimate.

“Some commentators had predicted fatigue post-Basel, but these results speak for themselves,” Alex Branczik, head of Contemporary Art for Europe at Sotheby’s, said after the event.

The revived Christie’s equivalent was a somewhat shrunken set of sales: “Post-War to Present,” and still cheaper lots in “Handpicked: 50 Works Selected by the Saatchi Gallery.” In total about 18 artist records were set, including for Marc Camille Chaimowicz, though there was a high-profile failure in a forbidding Dexter Dalwood image of the drained swimming pool where the Rolling Stone Brian Jones had previously drowned.

Still, taken across all the houses, the test of some £170 million worth of art showed few works exceeding the £10 million mark. The middle market was dominant, with few big-ticket works on the block and those that were there seen as more speculative.

With Christie’s exceeding £10 million and Bonhams £4 million, some of the biggest headlines came from Phillips with a sold-out £34 million affair. Phillips has now had its best sale ever (in London in March); and this last month its biggest day sale and largest June Contemporary sale. This is a noteworthy achievement because it had less guarantees with sellers deciding to take a risk. “White Glove” sales (or everything sold) are comparatively rare and some of the earlier June sales did indeed suggest exhaustion after the activity at Art Basel and the May New York auctions. Auction houses may again look at the summer sales if the evidence points to weaker demand. When rates drop to 68 percent then something is not quite right.

In the first five months of 2018, Impressionist and Modern works had been putting in surges to rival gains in the contemporary market. There was a mixed picture in the June sales. Christie’s made £128 million for one of its better June sales, 84 percent sold, and approaching high estimates. A star lot was Picasso’s “Femme dans un fauteuil (Dora Maar)” from 1942, which made £19.4 million, which was in the middle of its whisper estimates. Christie’s said that 76 percent of artworks in the event had not been seen at auction in the past 20 years. Sotheby’s made £87.5 million, below lower estimate, with more guaranteed lots and a 72 percent sell-by rate. It had a potentially sexier Picasso in “Buste de Femme de Profil (Femme ecrivant)” from 1932. The Marie-Therese Walter portrait still failed to arouse much interest and made £27.3 million. With all of the auction houses talking confidentially of some stellar lots planned for the autumn sales, we can only speculate on what might emerge next on the block.

Another Picasso portrait of Marie-Therese seems likely, along with some major Basquiats, one of which has been privately shown. One source of inspiration which has been in the public domain is of course “Salvator Mundi,” the work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that sold last year for $450.3 million, a record for any work of art at public auction. It will be on show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September, shortly preceding auctions on both sides of the Atlantic that may yet produce its successor.

This article appears in the August edition of Art+Auction.

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