An in-depth version of this sale report is available via Art Market Monitor with details on the sellers of prized works by David Hockney, Pablo Picasso, and Damien Hirst.
In response to Christie’s £168 million ($230 million) 20th Century sale in London on Tuesday, Sotheby’s staged its now familiar cross category mix of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art today allowing for an Old Master or two to be thrown in and for them to stretch the sale title to “Modern Renaissance.” Sotheby’s was still the shorter sale, though. Comprising 47 lots with a pre-sale estimate of £66.6-£93 million ($92 million-$128 million), it came near the top at £96.9 million ($132.6 million). (Sold prices include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not.) Last year, the equivalent sales for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art at Sotheby’s London comprised 80 lots which sold for £141.5 million ($194.7 million).
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Two of the top lots going into the sale were by Edvard Munch who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both had been commandeered by the Nazi regime during WWII before being sold and entering the well-known Olsen family collection in Norway, the current consignor. The original owner, industrialist Thomas Olsen, was a friend and patron of the artist, owning 30 works by Munch at the time of his death. Those works were inherited by his two sons Fred and Petter Olsen, who were at the center of a legal dispute around the estate, which was settled in 2001.
In 2006, Fred Olsen sold two Munchs, including The Linde Frieze at Sotheby’s in London, where the works fetched a collective £23 million ($31.7 million). It appears the buyer in 2006 was indeed Fred’s brother, Petter, as the ghostly lakeside painting reappeared in yesterday’s auction with a £9 million-£12 million ($12.4 million-$16.5 million) estimate, never having left the Olsen family’s holdings. Four bidders, from London, New York and Hong Kong vied for the painting (it was one of 8 guaranteed lots in the sale). This time it realized a reasonable return for Olsen over the 15 year holding period at an above estimate for £16.3 million ($22.4 million) from the Hong Kong bidder.
A further Munch from the Olsen collection was the later Self Portrait with Palette (1926), which Thomas bought at auction in Oslo in 1939 for 15,000 Norwegian Krone and has not been on the market since. Estimated at £4.5 million-£6.5 million ($6.2 million-$9 million), it had less popular appeal than the frieze and met with subdued biding from New York, selling below estimate for £4.3 million ($5.9 million).
Two other top lots in the sale came from a London-based Israeli collector. The first was David Hockney’s unconventionally arranged six-part landscape Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge), 2017, bought from Pace the following year. Estimated at £6.5 million-£8.5 million ($9 million-$11.7 million) it was guaranteed and appeared to sell to the guarantor for £7.3 million ($10 million). Another was Picasso’s 1941 portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1941). Estimated at £6.5 million-£8.5 million ($9 million-$11.7 million), it hammered above the low estimate and the guarantee, to a buyer on the phone with Asia chairman, Patti Wong, on a bid of £9.4 million ($12.9 million).
Just featuring among the top five estimated lots, was the Renaissance 15th century Portrait of Youth by Piero del Pollaiulo at £4 million-£6 million ($5.5 million-$8.2 million). It was sold by modern art dealer Thomas Gibson who also parted with a small collection of modern drawings at Sotheby’s in New York earlier in the month, which sold for $25.3 million. Gibson bought the portrait at Christie’s in 1985 when it was attributed to the lesser Cosimo Roselli, for £91,800 ($126,335). Now fully catalogued (though disputed in some quarters) as by Piero del Pollaiulo, Gibson was selling it on behalf of his children, one of whom, Hugh, took over his father’s namesake Gallery in 2015.
Sotheby’s said this was the only known portrait by the artist in private hands and was once in the same collection, held by Thomas Merton, as the $92 million Botticelli that they sold earlier this year. The last time a Pollaiulo portrait appeared on the open market was in 2012, when a 1470 drawing of a young man sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, against an estimate of $300,000. The buyer was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting today, however, seemed to suffer from the attribution doubts and elicited only one bidder who is taking it home at £4.6 million ($6.3 million)…a record nonetheless.
Leaving the Renaissance and its issues of attribution aside, the sale was thin on Impressionists– the earlier Paris sale having the better selection – but had some modern and post-war gems. A rare early architectural painting from 1922 by the Czech modernist František Kupka, Le Jaillissement II (Tryskání II,) was the subject of a three way bidding battle before selling for a triple estimate £7.55 million ($10.4 million), a record price for the artist.
As at Christie’s, there was a strong presence of post-war Paris, art informel works, with period classics by Jean Dubuffet, Wols and, particularly, Jean Fautrier. Following the record £4.5 million ($6.2 million) at Christie’s for a large wartime canvas by Fautrier, two determined bidders, one, through Helena Newman and another, presumably German, through Martin Klosterfelde, went for Corps d’otage (1943-44), a smaller but still rare work from the “otage” series leaving the £500,000 ($688,000) estimate way behind until it sold for £3.1 million ($4.3 million) to Klosterfelde’s bidder.
Unlike Christie’s, the top surrealist price here was for an American, Arshile Gorky’s Garden in Sochi (ca. 1941)– signed after the artist’s death in 1948 by his widow. The vibrant, playful composition was subject to strong bidding from two American phone bidders before selling for a triple estimate (though not a record) £8.6 million ($11.8 million).
It was also a sale that allowed for a couple of cameo performances by artists not usually included in the international category. Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977) by Bahman Mohasases was the first work by an Iranian artist to be included in a Modern and Contemporary as opposed to Middle Eastern sale. Coming from the artist’s estate and bearing hallmark influences of both Goya and the Surrealists, it was a museum quality work and attracted bidding from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere before selling for a double estimate record of £1 million ($1.4 million).
A lone work by a Modern British artist was a sensuous 1924 carved sandstone female torso by the sculptor Frank Dobson and was the biggest surprise of the sale. Although Dobson’s record since improved to reach £338,500 ($643,000) in 2005– nothing has approached that since. But on Thursday, with the auctioneer reminding viewers it had once belonged to Alberto Giacometti, the carving easily surpassed its unprecedented £250,000 ($344,000) estimate to sell to an Impressionist and Modern art department client for £2.04 million ($2.8 million).
The contemporary content of the sale, even examples by Matthew Wong and Banksy, was comparatively unremarkable. A once fashionable digitally manipulated C-print of the Singapore Borse by Andreas Gursky, that sold in 2013 for £421,250 ($660,000), sold on the low estimate for £252,000 ($346,802), and for YBA supporters there were some unpromising results. Damien Hirst’s zebra in formaldehyde, Incredible Journey (2008), was purchased in 2008 at Sotheby’s during the the artist’s one-man sale, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.”
Swanky Holland Park restaurant, the Belvedere, closed for most of the pandemic, had consigned a 7-foot diameter circular Damien Hirst butterfly collage, The Human Voice, 2006, from his Butterfly Grid series with a £600,000-£800,000 ($825,000-$1.1 million) estimate. According to the Artnet database, similar sized Butterfly Grid paintings have sold for as much as £1.3 million ($1.8 million)– but that was back in 2008. On Thursday, this visually arresting work sold to a single bid from the U.S. for £620,000 ($853,000).
So this was a sale that emphasized the values of significant and previously undervalued modern artists—Fautrier, Kupka, Dobson and acted as a reminder of the brevity of bull markets for the new and fashionable.
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