Following up rather weak Impressionist and Modern Sales, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered their Post-War and Contemporary Art selections with modest expectations… going in, Sotheby’s had projected a nearly identical pre-sale estimate to last year while Christie’s pre-sale numbers were way down.
The top lot at Sotheby’s was David Hockney’s The Splash, which was guaranteed at the low end of it’s £20-30M estimate. The work attracted just two bids and sold for £23.1M ($30M)… no other lots came close to the Hockney. Well behind in second was a Basquiat at £7.4M ($ 9.7M) on a £6-8M estimate – it was picked up by Russian art specialist James Butterwick, who also nabbed Adrian Ghenie’s The Arrival for another £4.2M ($5.4M – est £2-3.5M). Rounding out the top three was a large Francis Bacon, though not a painting but a collage… still, the work sold for £7M ($9M) on a £6-8M estimate. Along with these three, two others broke the £5 million threshold – works by Yves Klein and Christopher Wool. One work was withdrawn, leaving 46 lots – a Richter, purchased just three years ago for $9M… this time around it was being offered with a low estimate of £6M and attracted no pre-sale interest. Of the 46 remaining works, 43 found buyers (93%) for a total of £92.5M ($120M); they were expecting between £85-118.8M, so towards the lower end of the range even with the buyer’s premiums added in.
Christie’s offerings painted a pretty poor picture. Similarly to the Impressionist and Modern sales, it seems to be an issue with sourcing material, but nevertheless it doesn’t look good. Going into the evening, they were expecting just £41.6-61.3M ($53.9-79.4M); the lowest pre-sale estimate for a London winter evening sale since 2011. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that oftentimes, a Contemporary Art Evening sale can feature a single lot that can greatly surpass this entire sale’s estimate, but here we are. The discrepancy between the two house’s offerings was glaringly obvious… Christie’s didn’t have a single lot that topped £5M, which again speaks to the difficulty of sourcing material. The top lot of the evening went to Warhol’s 40×40 inch portrait of Muhammad Ali, which was part of a series known as the “Athlete Series.” The full set of 10 works was being offered individually in the sale; all of them coming from the estate of Richard Weisman, who originally commissioned the series in 1977. Muhammad Ali, the most sought after in the series, found a buyer at £4.9M ($6.35M) on a £3-5M estimate… the series of 10 pieces had a combined total of £8M ($10.3M). Last November in New York, the Weisman estate offered another version of the same series, and it sold for a combined total of $15M! Close behind in second was a controversial work by Basquiat that actually featured the highest estimate in the sale at £4-6M… the work titled The Mosque, which carried a third-party guarantee, featured an inscription that read “going to heaven” along with a sketchy rendition of a twin-towered mosque. I would assume the subject matter held this one back a bit as it went below estimate at £3.9M ($5.05M), most likely to the guarantor. Rounding out the top three was a work by Hockney that found a buyer at £3.2M on a £2.5-3.5M estimate. The 57-lot sale generated a paltry total of £56.2M ($72.8M), the lowest total in a decade, even though just one lot failed to sell – that figure is just above the low end of the estimate range, even with the premiums, so it was a pretty poor showing. We can partly attribute this to the uncertainty around Brexit or the impact of Coronavirus (though we were still in the early worry stages when the sale took place), but again, this seems to point to a difficulty in sourcing top-level material to offer in these sales.