Launching the spring auction season with a three-part auction that took place in London and Shanghai, Christie’s sold $334 million in works from the 20th and 21st centuries on Tuesday.
Between the three sales, 94 out of a total 105 lots that were offered sold. Two works—one by Stanley Whitney, the other by Gabriele Münter—came with in-house guarantees, while another 20 were secured with third-party backing. The entire grouping after several lots were withdrawn was expected to fetch an estimated hammer price of £202 million–£290 million ($269 million–$386 million). (The sale’s final sum of $334 million includes premium.)
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This was the first time the house’s mid-season London evening sale was expanded to include a section conducted at a salesroom in Asia. It marks an attempt by the house to further incorporate clients across the Asia Pacific region into marquee Western sales.
Christie’s auctioneer Caroline Liang, a jewelry specialist based in Shanghai, took to the rostrum on Tuesday evening to kick off the dual-city sale event, titled “20/21 Century Shanghai to London.” Jussi Pylkannen, Christie’s European president, took over in London, later passing the gavel on to his colleague Veronica Scarpati, a London-based 20th and 21 century art specialist, for a section focused on Surrealism.
The work which fetched the highest price on Tuesday was a Franz Marc painting from 1913 that was the the subject of a closely watched restitution case. It came to the sale after being returned from a German museum to the heirs of its former owner, the Jewish businessman and banker Kurt Grawi, in January 2021. The painting, titled Die Füchse (Foxes), sold for £31.3 million ($41.7 million) to bidder on the phone with Christie’s London-based client liaison Guy Agazarian. It had been expected to fetch roughly £35 million ($46.8 million), and although it didn’t succeed in doing so, the price well outpaced Marc’s previous record of $24.2 million, paid for Weidende Pferde III (1910) at Sotheby’s London in 2008.
A large-scale untitled triptych painting by Francis Bacon produced between 1986 and 1987 went to a lone bidder on the phone with Christie’s c0-head of the London modern and contemporary art evening sale, Katherine Arnold, for a final price of £39.4 million ($47.6 million). Coming to the sale with an irrevocable bid, the work hammered just below its low estimate of £35 million ($47 million). First exhibited in Moscow in 1988, the billboard-sized work bares reference to three different figures: Woodrow Wilson after signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919; Bacon’s then-partner, John Edwards; and the Russian political dissident Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in 1940.
Another big-ticket item to hit the block in London was Lucian Freud’s Girl with Closed Eyes (1986–87), a portrait of the painter’s muse, Janey Longman, that a British collector had held onto since 1987. The canvas, featuring a partially nude Longman who appears to be sleeping, hammered at a price of £13 million ($17.3 million). The result landed between the £10 million–£15 million ($13.4 million–$20 million) estimate and sold for a final price of £15.2 million ($20.2 million).
Elsewhere in the sale, five works by Picasso were sold by the mega-collecting Berggruen family. Those works attracted bidding across Shanghai, London, and New York. Out of the group, Picasso’s print etching of two dining figures Le Repas frugal (1904) sold for the highest price of £6 million ($8 million) with premium. The result was four times its £1.5 million ($2 million) estimate.
Bidding from Asia drove up the hammer prices for contemporary artists in high demand. Multiple buyers on the phone with Christie’s Shanghai and Hong Kong specialists competed for a 2017 still life of pink tulips by Nicolas Party. Competition for the lot accelerated the bidding pace that had slowed midway through the sale. The work ultimately went to a buyer on the phone with Christie’s regional director for China Tan Bo for a final price of £1.8 million ($2.4 million), more than four times the low estimate. A 2015 minuscule canvas by Romanian contemporary painter Victor Man, featuring a portrait of a dazed woman and titled D with Raven, saw a bidding frenzy before it eventually sold for a final price of £214,200 ($285,000). The result was more than ten times the pre-sale low estimate of £20,000 ($26,000). It went to a Shanghai bidder, who beat out eight others calling in from New York, Italy, and London. The result set a new record for the artist, surpassing Man’s previous milestone price of $54,000, paid for an untitled 2005 painting sold at Phillips in 2014.
At the house’s new headquarters in Shanghai, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Il Duce, featuring a skeletal figure on an orange ground, was the top seller, going for CYN 94 million ($14.9 million) and meeting its low estimate. But it was up-and-comers who took the spotlight. Irish painter Genieve Figgis’s 2017 painting Debutante’s Ball sold for CNY 4 million ($639,000), against an estimated CNY 800,000 ($127,000). Emmanuel Taku’s 2015 canvas Ripped, a double portrait of two pink-clad suited men sold for CNY 1.6 million ($253,000) with premium. The result was 8 times the low estimate of CNY 200,000 ($32,000). Both the Figgis and Taku results marked new records for the artists.
Capping the final portion of the night were lots by modernists prized in the European market. Pablo Picasso’s cubist portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La fenê tre ouverte (1929), came to sale after being held in a private collection for half a century. It went for £16 million ($21.3 million), against an estimate of $14 million. A 1937 Salvador Dalí pen and ink drawing of three figures titled Femme à la tête de rose, buste de femme et vieillard nu hammered at £240,000 ($320,000) with a buyer in the room, doubling the £100,000 low estimate and selling for a final price of £302,400 ($403,000).
Efforts since the start of the pandemic to further expand the reach of sales taking place in Western hubs to Asia are paying off, as was evident at Christie’s today. Asian bidders’ activity threatens to rival that of buyers based in the U.S. and Europe. The shifting dynamic was felt during bidding over the Man work, which was won by an buyer in Asia. Just before he brought down the hammer, Pylkannen addressed specialists on the phone with buyers from New York, London, and Italy, and said, “That was as close as you go.”