In Its First Major Modern and Contemporary Offering of 2023, Sotheby’s London Saw Five Artworks Sell for More Than $18 Million Each

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Following a $202 million result at Christie’s London on Tuesday for its inaugural marquee auctions of 2023, Sotheby’s held a concentrated and robust two-sale series in London tonight that netted £172.6 million, or $208.2 million. The total, however, fell short of the $297.2 million that Sotheby’s realized a year ago for the analogous sales.

Bidders seemed prepared to spend but determined not to overpay. Things started off with a bang on the 20-lot offering of ultra-contemporary art titled the Now, which achieved white-glove status when it was 100 percent sold. The selection reflected some of the most sought-after names among younger emerging artists, particularly the current vogue for figurative painting; and there were plenty of prominent female artists represented, with the sale roughly split between male and female artists. It was followed by a larger offering of Modern and contemporary art that saw artists as disparate as Kees van Dongen and Damien Hirst offered side by side. It, too, had its share of high points, with some fresh-to-market material and five lots on which the estimate was at least £10 million ($12 million). 

In all, the Now realized £13.7 million ($16.6 million), handily exceeding its presale estimate of £6.6 million to £9.3 million ($8 million to $11.2 million). However, this estimate was less than half of that of the comparable auction in 2022, perhaps reflecting a cautious estimation strategy in an uncertain financial climate. Seven artist records were set, for Michael Armitage, Raghav Babbar, Miriam Cahn, Guglielmo Castelli, Jana Euler, Spencer Lewis, and Chloe Wise. Three lots were guaranteed by the house, and one, a work by Caroline Walker, carried an irrevocable bid, meaning it would sell no matter what happened on the bidding front.

Caroline Walker, In Every Dream Home. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Caroline Walker, (2013). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Given that the Walker—a compelling 2013 painting titled , a title inspired by a Roxy Music song—soared to more than six times its low estimate, at a final price of £622,300 ($751,004), it likely was not taken home by the third party, or outside backer.

The highest price of the sale was paid for in-demand artist Cecily Brown’s (2014), which sold for a premium-inclusive £3.4 million ($4.1 million) to a client bidding through Sotheby’s Los Angeles-based senior specialist Jackie Wachter. That work by Brown—who has a solo exhibition opening next month at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—last traded at auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2017 for HK $6,700,000, or $862,168, including premium—a considerable appreciation.

Cecily Brown, The Nymphs Have Departed (2014). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Cecily Brown, (2014). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Wachter’s client was on a tear this evening, also scooping up Shara Hughes’ painting (2018) for £533,400 ($643,700) and Nicolas Party’s simply titled landscape (2019) for £1.4 million ($1.7 million). The busy buyer dropped a cool £5.9 million ($7.1 million) in a matter of minutes.

The Now sale also marked the auction debut for Mohammed Sami, whose (2019) was granted the opening slot and made £355,600 ($428,996), or five times its high estimate, and for Emma Webster, whose  (2019) fetched £406,400 ($490,281), at six times its high estimate. In keeping with the sale’s emphasis on novelty, all but one of the lots on offer were making their first appearance on the block. Auctioneer Michael Macaulay kept the action moving at a rapid clip and was handed a white glove at the end.

Emma Webster, Primavera. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Emma Webster, (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

After this taut proceeding, the Modern and contemporary sale scored a solid £172.6 million ($208.2 million), compared with a downgraded estimate of £133.1 million to £178.3 million ($160.6 million to $215.2 million). (Note that final prices include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.) Three lots were withdrawn, though the auction house no longer appears to be noting this in its presale remarks. Instead, auctioneer Helena Newman announced their withdrawal as they were due to come on the auction block and then skipped to the next available lot. The prior presale estimate had been £136 million to £182.6 million ($164.1 million to $220.4 million). Of the 36 lots on offer, 30 sold and six failed to find buyers, for a final sell-through by volume of 83.3 percent. 

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) (1910). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Wassily Kandinsky, (1910). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

There was one direct Sotheby’s guarantee and seven irrevocable bids in place, including for one of the star lots, a restituted Wassily Kandinsky painting, (1910), which set a new high-water mark for the artist of £37.2 million ($44.9 million) after bidding opened at around £28 million ($33.8 million). The previous auction record for Kandinsky was £33 million ($41.8 million) for a painting sold at Sotheby’s London, in June 2017.

Lucian Freud, Ib Reading (1997). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Lucian Freud, (1997). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Impressively, five works achieved more than £15 million ($18 million) each, a level that Sotheby’s said was the best performance at any of its London sales since 2015. Along with the Kandinsky, these included works by Edvard Munch, Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, and Pablo Picasso.

Richter’s (1986) was another star, selling for a premium-inclusive £24.2 million ($29.2 million) after bidding opened at £18 million ($21.7 million). The work drew considerable interest from Asia, judging by the competition between Wendy Lin, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, and deputy chairman Jen Hua, both on phones and bidding for their respective clients.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1986). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Gerhard Richter, (1986). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Hua wound up winning it for her client with a final offer of £20.8 million ($25.1 million), or £24.2 million ($29.2 million) with premium. As always, past auction results provide a measure of how far a particular market has come in the past few decades: The Richter last appeared at a Sotheby’s New York sale in November 2007, when it realized $9.8 million from the current consignor.

Another restituted work, and closely watched star lot, was a large Edvard Munch painting, (1906–07). At least four buyers chased the work after it opened at £9 million ($10.9 million) until it was hammered down at £14.2 million ($17.1 million), or a premium-inclusive £16.9 million ($20.4 million), to a buyer in the room. This lot, too, was backed by a third-party guarantee.

Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry (1980). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Andy Warhol, (1980). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Collectors from Asia were active throughout the night, including on the first lot of the sale—two works by Barbara Kruger, and (both 1989), which went for £889,000 ($1.1 million)—and Andy Warhol’s 1980 portrait of Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry, which just topped its high estimate at £6,599,300 ($8 million).

Other records set during the main sale included a new high for Robert Delaunay, when (1937) sold for £7.2 million ($8.7 million), and a new benchmark for a work on paper by Jenny Saville, when (2003–04) sold for £571,500 ($689,458).

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