As Middling Sotheby’s Sale Nets $105 M., Market Watchers Ward Off Talk of London’s Waning Importance

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balancethe ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

Before Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale on Tuesday, the omens weren’t good; a stuttering UK economy, an impending election, a cooling art market, and the headline lot (Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict, 1982) listed with an estimate of around $20-25 million, a noticeable drop from the $30 million estimate Christie’s gave it in 2022 (before it was withdrawn). Very few were therefore holding out for a blockbuster auction. The result, a shade over $105 million (including buyer’s premium) and $20 million short of the high estimate, was received with determined sanguinity by the top brass.

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Were they relieved? Probably a little. 

Like Sotheby’s last London contemporary evening sale in March, the outcome won’t send the house spiraling into despair amid ongoing talk of the art market “correction.” Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s vice chairman of global fine arts, told ARTnews that the result was “solid” but said the auction was “difficult to put together” because “people are short on reasons to sell at the moment.” People were short on impetus to spend really big as well, relatively speaking. The hot humid weather – the mercury was flirting with 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the capital – didn’t exactly fry the bidding and several lots edged past their low estimate, largely thanks to the patience of auctioneers Oliver Barker and Helen Newman. At lot 27, a landscape by Vilhelm Hammershøi that eventually hammered for $834,669, a heckler (reportedly veteran columnist Danny Katz of The Age at the Sydney Morning Herald]) shouted, “Put the hammer down!” – to which Newman implored, “But she came all the way from Asia!”

On par with Sotheby’s New York May sales, 90 percent of the lots sold and this time, Basquiat’s aforementioned triptych carried, scooping the night’s top price – $20.2 million. Three lots were withdrawn (artworks by Tamara de Lempicka, Loie Hollowell, and Emily Kam Kngwarray), while five were passed after failing to meet their reserve, including Robert Rauschenberg’s Untitled (1958), estimated at $440,000 to $570,000. However, works owned by the late Chicago collector Ralph I. Goldenberg injected more than $16 million into the total – Cy Twombly’s Formian Dreams + Actuality (1983) doubled its estimate at $3.1 million and his By the Ionian Sea (1988) went for $2.7 million (high estimate $1.5 million).

“Some very solid, efficient results, and some great surprises – there was a depth of bidding on the Goldenberg collection that truly captivated us internally and UK dealers and collectors alike,” Tom Eddison, Sotheby’s senior specialist of contemporary art, told ARTnews post-sale. 

In view of the softer market and the big three houses’ tilt towards Asia, does he think London’s status is at risk? “No, I don’t agree with that notion. We are very passionate about London being a great platform. We had 35 different countries bidding tonight. London still remains, certainly for Sotheby’s, the global hub for people coming to buy. We are resolute.”

Antonia Gardner, the head of evening auctions, echoed his sentiment. “Given we just had a $100 million plus sale here tonight, it doesn’t feel like we are losing our way,” she said.

London dealers at both ends of the game, meanwhile, were generally upbeat. Elliot McDonald, Pace Gallery London’s senior vice president, told ARTnews in an email before the auction, “We’re experiencing a market that’s becoming more selective in its acquisitions, yet the appetite for exceptional quality and exciting contemporary artists remains as strong as ever.” He pointed to Pace peddling major works by Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Agnes Martin, and Kam Kngwarray at Art Basel earlier this month. “Going in [to Basel], there were some uncertainties, but the very strong sales at our booth demonstrated the enduring vigor and enthusiasm in today’s art market.”

McDonald was optimistic for the future too, adding, “The ongoing stability we’ve observed in the auctions offers reassuring evidence that the broader ecosystem is thriving.”

Will Hainsworth, the co-founder and director of recently opened Palmer Gallery, located near London’s Edgware Road and dealing in emerging artists, told ARTnews that at his end of the market, “Things seem strong.” 

“There’s a lot of doom-mongering going on, perhaps some of it justified by poor auction results. When you’re working with emerging artists the price points are accessible for a range of collectors and the enthusiasm to collect is definitely there,” he said in an email pre-sale. “London’s emerging gallery scene is a very exciting place at the moment – there are people doing interesting, risky things and, as ever, there are people on hand to support that.”

Back at the auction, a trio of lots by Alberto Giacometti incited a flurry of bidding, with the penultimate lot Figure, dite cubiste I (c. 1926) going for $2.28 million on a $884,000 – 1.26 million estimate. Lot 37 – Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bouquet de Iilas (1878) – sparked a 10-minute bidding war and when it hammered for double its high estimate at $8.7 million, the crowd cheered and whistled, perhaps a little sardonically. Aside from Giacometti’s bronze edition, the excitement faded soon after. When lot 38 rolled around, The Baer Faxt’s Josh Baer walked past and said the night “wasn’t exactly a home run” for Sotheby’s. Melanie Gerlis, the Financial Times’ art market columnist, also said she felt the sale was “flat.”

In the press room at the end of the evening, Newman – the chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and co-head of Impressionist and Modern art worldwide – said she was far from disappointed. “I’m actually pleased with the result,” she told ARTnews enthusiastically. “We saw a depth of bidding on such a complete range of works, including the red Lucio Fontana [Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1966, sold for $4.3 million]… to Zdeněk Sýkora’s first appearance at an evening sale [Linie Nr.94, 1992 sold for $950,000].”

The Modern and Contemporary day auctions follow on Wednesday for Sotheby’s summer season, the latter including the second tranche of works from the Goldenberg collection. Alex Katz’s Danielle (2020) and Peter Doig’s Border Country (1999) are both estimated at $630,000-880,000, and Joseph Beuys (1980) by Andy Warhol is valued at $500,000-750,000.


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