Wednesday’s Modern & Contemporary evening sale at Sotheby’s London showroom saw fifty-four works from some of the most recognizable names in the visual arts come up to the auction block. But while an auction like this typically has the wealthy clamoring to get their hands on a painting or a bronze, this sale went… just okay. There were no wow moments, as almost everything stayed within their estimates, and there were no fast-paced bidding wars or unexpected hammer prices.
The sale’s headliner was René Magritte’s surrealist painting L’empire des lumières: a house among trees shrouded in the darkness of night, all underneath a bright, blue, midday sky. After stalling at £45 million, the auctioneer lingered long enough to get the hammer price up to £51.5 million (or £59.4 million w/p). While it fell short of its £60 million estimate, the auctioneer wasted no time in reminding the room that this was a new auction record for a work by Magritte. The previous record-holder, entitled Le principe du plaisir, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2018 for $23.5 million (or $26.8 million w/p). But anyone paying attention to Wednesday’s sale should not have been surprised since the painting was guaranteed and the bidding started at £40 million. It takes the excitement out of an event when the outcome is ensured. In their description, the Sotheby’s specialists made sure to refer to L’empire des lumières as “[o]ne of the Belgian master’s finest works”. And while the subject is undoubtedly intriguing, some may not see the work as such. It’s simply not as striking as many of Magritte’s other great surrealist works, like Le fils de l’homme or La Durée poignardée. During the Art of the Surreal evening sale at Christie’s, five Magritte works were sold, including one previously owned by Sophia Loren. All of them were far more remarkable than the dark canvas sold for a record price at Sotheby’s. This was especially the case with La mémoire, a 1942 gouache painting: a jingle bell, a rose, and the bloodstained head of a female statue on a wooden surface against a darkening seascape. While it sold for £1.7 million (or £2.08 million w/p), far less than L’empire des lumières, at least it reached its estimate.
The rest of the auction had very few surprises, if at all. They stayed within their estimates, some of them a little high to begin with. Nymphéas, one of Claude Monet’s waterlily paintings, hit its £20 million high estimate, a rather high price tag given the work is stamped with Monet’s signature rather than properly signed. David Hockney took third when his 2017 acrylic on canvas Garrowby Hill brought in £12.05 million (or £14.09 million w/p). The landscape, with its irregularly hexagonal canvas and its bright colors typical of Hockney’s work, was one of the magnificent, unsung heroes of the sale. It contrasted perfectly with the dull, drab Picasso painting Buste de femme accoudée, gris et blanc that sold for £10.5 million (or £11.9 million w/p). It’s inconceivable that someone would shell out that much money, not only because the work is so dreary, but also because the work is completely unsigned.
While Sotheby’s heavily promoted the Magritte as a future record-setter, the auction wasn’t much of a success on the whole. While the entire sale was predicted to bring in anywhere between £169.8 million to £216 million, the total amount spent on Wednesday fell a bit short of the low end at £162,740,000. Not an insignificant amount of money, but a little disappointing given what Sotheby’s predicted.