This week’s London auctions will be closely scrutinized. FIrst, to see whether the British capital can retain its status as the second largest art market center in the world in spite of the prognostications of doom and gloom that have been piling up on its doorstep, and next, to gauge to what extent sellers might be needing to readjust their sights.
The U.K. capital’s summer season has traditionally been a crowning point for the art market that nestles in neatly in with prime social and sporting events like Wimbledon and Ascot. But, under the weight of Covid, Brexit red tape, war, inflation, and general economic pessimism, London has been struggling.
Consider that in 2015, the auctions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s realised over £600 million and were accompanied by bustling, luxurious art and antiques fairs such as Masterpiece, and gallery co-operative events like London Art Week. Cut to now, and Masterpiece was unceremoniously dumped by owner-operator MCH earlier this year (although a new event, The Treasure House Fair, has risen in its place and is doing well enough to keep London’s flame alive) and though London Art Week will proceed as normal, as will the auctions, these appear to have slipped in terms of their heft.
As of today, presale estimates for the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art on offer are between £267 million ($339.7 million) and £360 million ($458 million), excluding the buyer’s premium, according to ArtTactic. That’s a long way down from 2015, and a notch short of last year’s £421 million total realised including the buyer’s premium.
With fewer great Monets or Picassos on the block than usual, the composition of the series is unusually reliant on a single work—Gustav Klimt’s (1917-18), estimated by Sotheby’s at £65 million ($82.7 million) and guaranteed, making it the most expensive painting ever auctioned in Europe. It was last sold in New York in 1994 when it fetched $11.7 million. The buyer then was as anonymous then as they are now as a seller—that is, “deeply anonymous,” according to market experts and academics familiar with the work.
Just as anonymous, if anonymity is a matter of degree, is someone whose collection goes under the sobriquet “Britain’s Visionaries” at Sotheby’s. The collection includes top-drawer works by Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach valued at £13 million to £18.5 million ($16.5 million to $23.5 million). Freud’s late 60s portrait of Penny Cuthbertson, a society beauty looking ravaged in a studio armchair, was acquired from Charles Saatchi in the 90s and carries the highest estimate of the consignment at £8 million to £12 million. A large Auerbach, (1969) carries the highest estimate yet for a work by the artist at £3.5 million to £4.5 million, is guaranteed by a third party, and could rival the auction record of £5.6 million ($6.3 million) set last October (though another painting of Mornington Crescent is said to have sold privately for more through the Piano Nobile gallery).
The “British Visionaries” consignor was advised back in the 80s and 90s by private dealer Ivor Braka, who remains understandably tight lipped on their identity. However, Artnet has learned that the seller is investor Douglas Woolf, who has a huge property portfolio in London as well as shopping malls and residential property in Boston, Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Alabama. Now in his 80s, Woolf and his family business are estimated by the to have paid £11.6 million in tax last year. Maybe they will owe a bit more next year, when these sales have gone through.
Another seller Artnet can reveal is Michael Green, the founder of now-defunct media conglomerate Carlton Communications and former chairman of ITV broadcasting company, now in his 70s and a practising psychotherapist. In 1987, he engaged in a bidding war along with his wife, Wolfson heiress Janet Green, to buy Howard Hodgkin’s the (1984–87), at the Whitechapel Art Gallery fundraising auction, chaired by a young Nicholas Serota. They spent a generous £172,000 including premium against a presale estimate of £35,000 to £50,000. Green is now selling it at Christie’s with an £800,000 to £1.2 million estimate, the highest yet on a work by Hodgkin. After their divorce in 1989, Janet went on to marry the financier and collector Gilbert de Botton (who spearheaded the trend for buying late Picassos in the 1980s) and became a trustee of the Tate. In 1996, she presented 60 works of art to the Tate, including pieces by Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, Cindy Sherman, Roni orn, Gary Hume, Nancy Spero, Andy Warhol, and Bill Woodrow.
The Whitechapel sale was one of the first auctions I covered as a reporter and I remember well how Serota, who had learned I was pitching to preview the sale for the rang me to say that if I published expected prices he might not receive the local government grant that was under review that week because the council would believe he could just sell art whenever the gallery needed money. That was not feasible, he said, because some artists like Hodgkin, who had donated one of his best works, would not repeat the gesture. The Whitechapel sale was a one off with other very generous donations from Anselm Kiefer, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden and Gerhard Richter. So, I delayed the article, and after the Whitechapel was awarded its grant, the auction made far more than the estimates had suggested with no negative comeback. Serota, with his proven skills at handling money and the press and at reading the contemporary art market, went on to direct the Tate soon after.
Another consignor Artnet can reveal is Berlin collector and heir to the Wella hair care estate Thomas Olbricht, who has several works at Phillips by George Condo, Jake & Dinos Chapman, and Wim Delvoye. Now aged 75, Olbricht has been making disposals from his collection of extraordinary contemporary art in his me Collectors Room since it closed in 2020, and these are the latest. Condo’s painting (2007) (£500,000 – £700,000) has been exhibited at several museum shows but only once, at the Kunsthalle Krens in 2010, under his name. The same applies to Jake & Dinos Chapman’s painted bronze (2003) (£60,000 -£80,000), another from the edition of which was shown at their Turner Prize exhibition in 2003, and Delvoye’s (2007) an over 10-foot-high stainless steel cathedral, interior lit with stained glass windows, and another work in this series to carry one of the highest estimates yet (£100,000 – £150,000) for the artist.
Other consignors to the sales include the late real estate investor Gerald Fineberg at Christie’s, whose $153 million sale in New York in May was seen as a turning point from a seller’s to a buyer’s market as so many works sold far below pre-sale estimates. The 11 works (estimated from £5 million – £6 million) from the Fineberg estate in London are led by a 1956 Twombly oil-and-wax crayon with a £2 million – £3 million estimate.
Also testing the current optimism for the Auerbach market is Magnus Konow, son of the Norwegian sailor who befriended Francis Bacon and became a regular drinking companion to the artist in Monaco in the 70s. Konow’s mother Olga bought Auerbach’s thickly encrusted (1963) in 1978, leaving it to her son on her death in 2002. The estimate is a punchy £2.5 million – £3.5 million for the small but much admired 16×20-inch painting.
Buried in the lower end of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Sales are a dozen works on paper from the Deutsche Bank collection, some assiduously assembled by curator Alistair Hicks during his 20-year tenure, which are the latest tranche of sales from the bank, which is now focusing on more recent contemporary art.
But estimated at £200,000 all told, they do nothing to divert the attention from the fact that, apart from the Klimt, there are only two other works at Sotheby’s estimated in the seven-figure range (Douglas Wool’s and a Twombly), and none at that level at Christie’s or Phillips.
Some discernible buying activity at the Treasure House Fair, and the flocking of advisors to the auction previews last week, gave the feeling that London was still very much alive and kicking. But how much of that was really a search for bargains in a buyer’s market? The answer will unfold this week.