With the United Kingdom having left the European Union last Friday, many have speculated about how Brexit might impact the art market in London. After a tepid sale at Sotheby’s on February 4, which brought in a total of £49.9 million ($64.9 million), the results at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale on Wednesday, February 5, were much brighter, doubling that auction’s haul with a total of £107 million, or about $138 million. Of the 49 lots offered, all but 8 sold, yielding a strong sell-through rate of 84 percent.
The evening was divided into two sections, with the house’s traditional Impressionist and Modern evening sale coming first, followed by a sale dedicated to Surrealist art. The majority of the night’s top lots came from the Imp-Mod portion of works on offer.
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The highest price paid was for a 1962 work by one of the movement’s best-known—and most in-demand—practitioners, René Magritte. Titled A la rencontre du plaisir, the work is a night scene featuring a forest with the artist’s signature faceless man with a bowler hat. The work was being sold by the family who directly acquired it from the artist. It was bought for £18.9 million ($24.6 million)—well above its pre-sale high estimate of £12 million ($15.6 million)—after fierce competition.
(All prices reported reflect the hammer price, plus the buyer’s premium and any applicable taxes. For tonight’s auction, the buyer’s premium was 25 percent of the hammer price of each lot up to and including £225,000, 20 percent on any amount over £225,000 up to and including £3,000,000, and 13.5 percent of the amount above £3,000,000.)
Two of the sale’s most spirited bidding wars came early in the sale with a 1918 Berlin street scene, which was the catalogue cover lot and titled Gefährliche Straße, by George Grosz quickly climbing to its final price of £9.7 million ($12.7 million) and the night’s second top lot Tamara de Lempicka’s 1932 Portrait de Marjorie Ferry going for £16.3 million ($21.2 million). Both sold well above their estimates of £4.5–£6.5 million ($5.8–$8.4 million) and £8–£12 million ($10.4–$15.6 million), respectively. The Lempicka painting is now the most expensive work ever sold by the artist, whose record was previously set in November by a canvas that sold for $13.4 million.
A 1962 still life painting by Picasso showing a dog looking at a lobster performed well, going for £4.4 million ($5.7 million), squarely within its pre-sale estimate of £4–£6 million ($5.2–7.8 million). Later in the sale, another Picasso still life of a potted plant on a yellow table went for £7.2 million ($9.4 million), just above its low estimate of £7 million.
Of the five sculptures on offer in both of the night’s sales, only two sold: an unremarkable bronze bust by Picasso for £827,250 ($1.07 million) and Giacometti’s Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau), showing three of his signature figures welded to a bronze plinth, going for £11.3 million ($14.6 million), just below its high estimate of £12 million, making it the third highest price paid at the sale.
Of the surprises in the evening’s sale came in the spirited bidding over an 1889 painting of a red-haired woman brushing her hair by the semi-obscure 19th-century French artist Louis Anquetin, which started at £300,000 and soon worked its way up to its final realized price of £1.3 million (£1.7 million), well above its high estimate of £600,000 ($780,000). Two others came in the volleying between bids for two lots that ultimately went for low sums: a 1957 painting of a slightly abstracted cat by Max Ernst for £175,000 ($227,500) and a 1945 painting by Dalí titled The Flight, The Temptation, The Love, The Broken Wings for £515,250 ($670,000), over a high estimate of £250,000 ($325,025).
Midway through the London affair, the salesroom took a break to reposition itself for the Surrealist portion of the sale, a much sleepier affair, conducted at a slower pace with longer pauses for additional bids.
The $24.6 million Magritte was not the only work by the artist on offer at the sale—there were also six others, spanning a range of styles and eras (1920s, ’40s, and ’50s), with all but one (a work on paper) selling for over £1 million, but not by much. The second-highest sum paid for a Magritte at the sale was for the catalogue’s cover lot, a seascape with the form of a giant soaring bird revealing a night sky, going for £2.9 million ($3.8 million).
The London auctions continue next week with the contemporary evening sale at Sotheby’s on February 11.