Christie’s 20th/21st Century Evening Sale Notches Steady Results, a Feat in the Current Tepid Art Market


Christie’s lives to fight another day.

The auction house’s main 20th/21st century evening sale in London on October 13 carried roughly the same expectations as this time last year: £40.6 million to £58.2 million ($49.2 million to $70.6 million) for 53 lots, reduced to 51 after 2 lots were withdrawn. It landed within estimate—and unexpectedly on a par with Sotheby’s—at £44.7 million ($54.5 million) including seven new auction records. Given the market is going through a serious adjustment, the fact that well over half the lots sold either within or above estimates was an achievement in itself.

The top price of the sale was a five-foot square collage, (1982), by Jean-Michel Basquiat from a U.S. collection, which was guaranteed and appeared to sell to the guarantor below estimate for £10.4 million ($12.6 million). (Prices paid include the buyers’ premium, estimates do not).

In fact, none of the top lots exceeded estimates. Those that bit the dust included a large Yayoi Kusama painting, 92, from a Berlin collection, with a £1.8 million ($2.2 million) low estimate, and Andy Warhol’s (1980) with a £1.5 million ($1.8 million) low estimate. This was slightly surprising given that another Warhol from the series sold for £3 million ($3.6 million) the night before at Sotheby’s. But then those shoes were pink, and these were brown.

The Christie’s sale coincided with a move headed by Sadiq Kahn, the Mayor of London, to promote London as a leading creative city in the world. Including a number of British artists has always been a feature of the Frieze week sales, and this year it was headed by the late Paula Rego with a diptych, (1995), believed to have been consigned by her gallery Marlborough Fine Art from whom it was bought by Charles Saatchi, who hung on it for over ten years. Estimated at a record £2.2 million- £3.2 million, it sold after limited bidding for £3.1 million ($3.8 million) to a client of Sotheby’s director Nicole Ching, a former press officer for the Long Museum in Shanghai.

As is the norm, the sale was front-loaded with the hottest younger-generation artists the house could find, with birthdates ranging from 1978 to 1996. Examples included a painting of females wrestling, (2018), by Jenna Gribbon, which surpassed estimates to fetch £226,800 ($274,972), and a semi-abstract painting, (2020) by recent British art school graduate Pam Evelyn, currently showing at Pace Gallery London, which attracted online bidding from South Africa and Michigan before selling to a phone bidder for a double estimate record £113,400 ($137,480).

Pam Evelyn (2020). Courtesy Christie’s

Flying the flag for Black British women was figurative painter Sahara Longe, a new star in the Timothy Taylor gallery camp. Over seven-feet high, her (2021), attracted eight telephone bidders, before more than doubling estimates to sell for a record £176,400 ($213,867).

Included in this group was a large glowing 1991 landscape by the Italian artist, Salvo (1947 – 2015) whose work used to be placed in specialised Italian sales. It was last sold at auction in Milan in 2018 for a double estimate 81,250 Euros and was estimated to recoup that amount with a £80,000 low estimate. However, 22 bidders registered to bid on the phone and all hell let loose in competition for the work until the diminutive New York based art adviser Gabriella Palmieri trumped them all with a bid from her seat to win the painting for a record £693,000 ($840,192).

Settling comfortably within his group was the late Etel Adnan whose undulating (2016), evoked a colour imbued desert landscape, which was chased by dealer Harry Blain before selling to an American phone bidder for a double estimate £327,600 ($397,181).

Salvo’s (1991). Courtesy Christie’s

Another older artist hitting a new high was Winston Branch, a Caribbean-born British artist in his seventies. Branch had a breakthrough in 2019 when one of his abstract paintings was acquired by Tate Britain, which compared it to a Monet. Nothing of his had sold at auction for more than £12,000 before, but in March 2020, one of his paintings was put up for sale at Christie’s with an unprecedented £40,000-£60,000 estimate and it sold to a private collector for £126,000 ($152,762). Branch then had an exhibition this year with the Simon Lee gallery (before it closed) where works were priced up to £400,000 each and several sold. At Christie’s today his shimmering abstract, (982-84), carried an even higher estimate at £100,000- £150,000 and exceeded that, selling to a phone bidder for £239,400 ($290,248). Underbidding in the room was a private collector from Switzerland who told Artnet News he had already bought work by Branch at Simon Lee’s exhibition.

Losing money tonight was Peter Doig’s (000-2002), bought in 2018 by Danish collector Jens Faurschou for $9.1 million and sold today for £6.1 million ($7.4 million)—though less to the seller after the auctioneer’s commission is deducted—and a very large Damien Hirst butterfly painting (2006), bought in 2010 for £2.2 million, which now sold for £1.5 million ($1.8 million).

Winston Branch (1982-1984). Courtesy Christie’s

Even El Anatsui, star of the current Tate Turbine Hall installation, was not spared. His 12×13-foot aluminium and copper wall hanging, (2015), sold just below estimate for a hammer price of £650,000 ($788,059), below the £725,000 the seller had paid for it in 2017.

Emerging relatively unscathed was Marlene Dumas’s unsettling (1996), last at auction in 2010 when it sold for £730,000, and now changing hands for £3.1 million. Similarly, a David Hockney paper pulp work, ) (1978), which was purchased in 2004 for £95,000 came back with an improved £529,200 ($641,601) this evening.

Perhaps the surprise unsold lot of the evening was Maria Berrio’s (2015). Three years ago the artist’s market was stimulated when she signed up with Victoria Miro. A similar work sold for a triple estimate $1.6 million in New York last November. But today’s estimate of £500,000- £700,000 was the highest for her yet, and the market was not in the mood. Nor was it receptive to (2022), a £400,000- £600,00 estimate painting by Jade Fadojutimi, who may have reached her peak for the time being, in spite of recent representation by Gagosian, after a lacklustre performance at Sotheby’s, perhaps leading to the withdrawal of the Christie’s offering from the sale.

But all in all, the sale successfully negotiated the challenges facing the British and indeed international art markets.


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