To a backdrop of war in Gaza, Sotheby’s kicked off its Frieze Week sales with two auctions on Thursday evening (12 October) in London: the 21-lot The Now sale featuring ultra-contemporary art, followed by a 21-lot evening sale of contemporary art. While the first sale performed slightly better than expectations, the second was extremely weak.
To start with the good news. A striking portrait by Lynette Yiadome-Boakye set a new auction record in The Now sale. Six Birds in the Bush (2015) leapfrogged its estimate of £1.2m to £1.8m to make £2.95m (estimates do not include fees, results do).It was not the top lot: that was George Condo’s Multicolored Female Composition (2016), a painting that sold for a price just £7,000 shy of its £3m high estimate. One lot, Peter Doig’s By a River (est. £3m-£4m) was withdrawn and a Jordan Casteel portrait, Jonathan (est £300,000-£400,000) failed to sell. The 21 lots just topped their pre-sale target of £9.3m to £13.6m, making £15.5m (with fees).
Yiadome-Boakye’s canvas was not the only one to outperform Sotheby’s expectations: Cecily Brown’s Tricky (2001) made £2.5m, well over its estimate of £1.2m to £1.8m. More disappointing was Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of the Beckhams, David, Victoria and Brooklyn (1999), which sold for a within-estimate £1.6m. A painting by Mohammed Sami, Poor Folk 1 (2019), vaulted past its pre-sale estimate of £60,000 to £80,000 to make £558,800. The Iraqi artist was the subject of a very well-received solo show at the Camden Art Centre earlier this year.
American buyers were active in The Now sale: a Sotheby’s spokesperson said one third of the lots went to the US, with another 20% of buyers from Asia. Despite the pound sterling having weakened against the US dollar in the last three months, the exchange rate was not a deciding factor, said specialist Alex Rotter, although this might have helped a little. However, it is difficult to draw many broad conclusions from such a small sale.
Things rapidly turned bleak after auctioneer Oliver Barker took the rostrum for the second auction of the evening on New Bond Street. The pre-sale estimate had been revised shortly before the start from an upper figure of £63.3m, a sign that some lots had been withdrawn before the auction started.In fact there were five withdrawals—works by Blinky Palermo, Mark Grotjahn, Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons and Luc Tuymans with a collective high estimate of £6.6m—leaving just 21 lots in the auction.
The real disaster was the failure of the star lot, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1986), which carried the night’s highest estimate (£16m-£24m) and no guarantee. The auctioneer called for bids but it stalled at £14.5m, with none apparently visible. That took a sizeable chunk out of the sale total, which crept in at £30.1m (including fees), well under the revised target of £39.9m to £57.9m. One other lot was bought in.
After the sale, Rotter defended the Richter, saying that it was one of the best of the Abstraktes Bild series and “we had offers, but they didn’t meet the vendor’s expectations”.
“The market has changed,” he said. “We saw that last week in Hong Kong,” he added, pointing as well to the weakness of the Chinese yen, and the problems with its economy. “With everything happening in the world at the moment, it is inevitable there were some disappointments.”
The top lot in the contemporary art auction was Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait (1979). Estimated to bring between £3.5m and £4.5m, it had been sold in Hong Kong in 2020 for the equivalent of £4m but had changed hands twice since. Reinforced by a guarantee and an irrevocable bid, it made £4.2m.
Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes (1980) danced to £3.3m, well over its pre-sale estimate of £1.2m to £1.8m. And a couple in the room happily carried off El Anatsui’s Dexterity (2021) for £1.07m against an estimate of £500,000 to £700,000. London’s Tate has just unveiled a huge installation in the Turbine Hall by the Ghana-born, Nigeria-based artist.
Despite these successes, the mood was downbeat as participants left the room, with one French dealer saying: “It really isn’t a surprise, this is the way things have been going for the last six months, the market is difficult.” As for guarantees, there were six in The Now sale and 12 in the contemporary evening sale, including a number for the withdrawn lots.
Compare Thursday’s night’s combined £45.6m result to last year, when the equivalent pair of sales made £97.1m. And even then, there were some last-minute jitters, with the withdrawal of eight out of 39 lots in the contemporary art sale. But the world is a very different place today than it was a year ago.
The Frieze Week auctions in London continue on Friday (13 October) with a contemporary art day sale at Sotheby’s, Phillips’s evening sale of 20th-century and contemporary art, and a double-header of evening auctions at Christie’s.