Two Back-to-Back Contemporary Auctions at Sotheby’s London Send Mixed Signals About the Art Market


Frieze week contemporary art sales got off to an uncertain start this evening (October 12) with two sales at Sotheby’s that told two different stories.

The more positive outcome was at The Now sale, the auction house’s fifth in the series, which was conceived to reflect demand for recent contemporary art. Estimated at £9.4 million- £13.6 million for 21 lots, it realized £15.5 million ($19 million) with 15 lots sold within or above estimates and three artists’ records set.

The relevant trajectory for this is that there were 4 more lots with a slightly higher presale estimate than last October when it was £8.9 to £11.5 million. The total was 75% up on last June, but still a long way down from the first London Now sale in March 2022 when 22 lots with a low estimate of £18 million realised £30 million.

After some criticism last year about the “nowness” of the work on offer, Sotheby’s this year offered journalists a breakdown on recent prices for the artists, highlighting that their highest prices had been achieved in the last three to five years, thus qualifying for the sobriquet, at least as far as the market was concerned. The question became whether that demand was holding up.

Despite the sale title’s implications, two works were from the 20th century and had been at auction before. Marlene Dumas’s (1999) was bought in 2003 for $141,900 (£85,200) and sold tonight for £483,000, without competition, to a third-party guarantor. While Elizabeth Peyton’s painting of the Beckhams, (1999)—bought in 2001 for $94,000 (£65,700)—came to auction with a £1.2 million low estimate and sold for £1.7 million, realising a phenomenal 26.7% average annual growth in value over the period.

Elizabeth Peyton’s (1999). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Adding to the work’s appeal was surely David Beckham’s growing popularity in the U.S., where he now plays, although Sotheby’s also pointed out that seven of Peyton’s top ten auction prices have been set in the last five years. That includes her record of $2.5 million set last November at Sotheby’s New York for (2003), according to Artnet’s Price Database.

Another good return among the top lots was for Cecily Brown’s (2001), which was bought for £228,500 in 2007 by a British collector. Now, it yielded £2.6 million. Brown is currently enjoying a prestigious solo show at the Met.

The top lot was to have been Peter Doig’s contemplative (2004) with an estimate of £3million/£4 million, but it was withdrawn for lack of presale interest.

Notable records did tumble, however. Those included for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s six-and-a-half-foot portrait (2015) with her highest estimate yet at £1.2 million- £1.8 million, which cruised past that to hit £2.9 million ($3.6 million) which Sotheby’s proudly announced as a record for any Black British woman artist; and Mohammed Sami, an Iraqi refugee to Britain who only made his auction debut in March when he achieved £355,600 at Sotheby’s. The latest offering, (2019) had likewise been bought from the Patrick Heide Gallery in London for around £15,000 and, estimated at £50,000- £80,000, sold for £558,500 ($686,570). Sami is represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York and Modern Art in London.

Other records in The Now sale fell for Pace Gallery’s William Monk (a double estimate £266,700) and Matt Connors, whose colourful untitled abstract composition from 2015, which had last sold in 2016 in New York for $112,000, traded hands this time to Sotheby’s Hong Kong-based director Alex Branczik for a slightly improved $156,000.

Asian competition throughout the evening was more restrained than usual and accounted for 20% of registrants, Sotheby’s said.

Making her auction debut was Stefanie Heinze, who shows with Pippy Houldsworth and Capitain Petzel, and whose surreal concoction (2016) had an eye opening £120,000- £180,000 estimate and sold for £279,400 to the same Asian phone bidder who bought the William Monk. The other debutant was Chinese artist Jiang Cheng, who has shown recently with Perrotin in Paris and Gagosian in Hong Kong, but whose portrait, , was guaranteed by Sotheby’s and sold at the low estimate of £31,750.

Also guaranteed by Sotheby’s but not sold was Jordan Casteel’s painting of fellow Yale student . Its last time out in 2019, it sold for $326,000 at Christie’s, but this time, with a covering estimate of £300,000- £400,000, there were no bids at £220,000—so now it belongs to Sotheby’s.

The market held back on Jade Fadojutumi’s large 2018 painting, perhaps because of the estimate which was equal to highest yet for the rising artist at £400,000- £600,000, and while it sold, no one was prepared to compete with an in-room bidder who claimed it with a £390,000 offer.

An unusual loss was anticipated for a work by another rising artist, Issy Wood, whose 2020 a close-up oil on velvet of black and red leatherware—had returned to the block as part of a larger consignment from Asia, after selling at Christie’s New York in May 2022 for $478,000. But several bidders took it back to its previous level, offering £419,100 ($514,927) on a £150,000 low estimate, and maintaining a sense of equilibrium to finish out The Now sale.

The mood then shifted for Sotheby’s main contemporary sale, with its more forgiving chronological span. The auction was well-attended, attracting a crowd of U.S. dealers, advisors, and collectors who had been perusing the Frieze fair—Don and Mera Rubell, Christophe van der Weghe, Stellan Holme, and Kim Heirston among them. But they were largely inactive. The sale contained just 21 lots after five were withdrawn, and had a £39,950 million- £57,950 million presale estimate, a steep drop from last year’s £81.4 million- £106.5 million (albeit for 34 lots).

The sale total of £30.2 million ($37 million) will not lend confidence to the market. Of the lots that sold, over half (11) did so either on the low estimate or below.

The highest estimate of the sale was the £16 million to £24 million for Gerhard Richter’s 1986 red , which the house identified as “from a distinguished European collection,” which Artnet News understands is that of the Swiss billionaire financier Urs Schwarzenbach.

The painting was bought at Sotheby’s London in February 2003 near the top estimate for £766,600. Subsequently, Richter’s 1980s abstracts—executed with squeegee and exuding luxury and wealth—became highly sought after by the likes of Roman Abramovich, who drove prices up into the eight-figure bracket.

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

But Schwarzenbach’s work had perhaps the wrong association to attract bids. Last year, the financier was ordered to pay CHF160 million (£144 million) to Swiss tax authorities for avoiding import tariffs on artworks. Alex Branczik was the only staff member on the phone for the Richter in question, but did not bid. Branczik had sold the last major Richter abstract at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong to a Chinese buyer.

The second-place lot by high estimate was a small Francis Bacon, (1979). It had been on the block as recently October 2020, when it was sold by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong for the equivalent of £3.95 million. Then it changed hands again before arriving in London with a £3.5 million low estimate and a third-party guarantee. This time Branczik did buy for his client, presumably the guarantor, on the low estimate for £4.3 million ($5.3 million), the highest price of the evening.

Another swift turn-around that defied expectations was for a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sculpture that was acquired by an Asian buyer in New York in 2020 for $2.2 million (£1.8 million). It was up again with a £2.4 million low estimate and a third-party guarantee, which it just surpassed, selling to an in-room bidder for £3 million.

Heading for a record and without a guarantee, was Frank Bowling’s sizeable (1981) with an unprecedented £700,000 to £1 million estimate. In line with asking prices for his best works at Hauser & Wirth since they took over management of his affairs from Hales gallery, it sold, but did not take off. A bidder paid £762,000—a record, nonetheless.

The most positive results in this sale were a double estimate £3.3 million for Andy Warhol’s pink-and-black (1980) and a wall hanging, (2021) by African artist El Anatsui, which flew over estimate to an in-room bidder for £1 million.

Martin Kippenberger, (1989-90). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

The bargain of the sale was probably an untitled streetlamp sculpture by Martin Kippenberger, which was estimated at £600,000- £800,000 and sold to a director at Per Skarstedt, Martin Klosterfelde, for £495,500.

Identifiable pricing gains were made for older generation artists such as Georg Baselitz, Donald Judd, and Philip Guston, but not huge amounts considering the seven- to 13-year periods. Other American stalwarts such as Pat Steir and Robert Ryman were selling at a loss compared to previous prices at auction, underscoring that this is a market in the throes of adjustment.

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