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Christie’s London Art Of The Surreal

March 3, 2023

A gouache work on paper showing the outline of a flying bird filled in with bright, cloudy sky. This is set against a darker, starry sky over an ocean.

Le retour by René Magritte

On Tuesday, February 28, Christie’s London hosted a small sale called the Art of the Surreal. It came on the heels of the much longer twentieth- and twenty-first-century sale earlier that day. Most of the thirty-two available lots are by some big names in twentieth-century surrealism, Dadaism, and general abstract art, such as Joan Miró, Paul Delvaux, and Leonora Carrington. However, one of the most represented artists in the sale and the creator of most of the top lots was the Belgian master René Magritte (w/p = with buyer’s premium).

An oil painting of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with an equal-sized grey feather leaning against one another against a warm, reddish-orange sky

Souvenir de voyage by René Magritte

The sale’s top lot was Magritte’s Le retour, a work of gouache on paper made around 1950. Christie’s specialists knew that this work would draw a great deal of attention, giving it a £4M to £6M estimate range and using its image on the sales promotional material online. The work last sold at auction in February 2004 at another one of Christie’s surrealist art sales, selling for £990.85K w/p. It did far better this time, selling for £5.1M / $6.17M (or £6.13M / $7.4M w/p). Magritte also took second place with the oil painting Souvenir de voyage, showing either a very large feather or a very small Leaning Tower of Pisa leaning against each other against a warm-colored sky. It’s a small canvas, barely 16 by 12 inches, created around 1958. It last sold at auction in 2009, where it went for £746.85K w/p at a Sotheby’s London modern & impressionist sale. Like Le retour, it did considerably better on Tuesday, selling for £4.6M / $5.56M (or £5.56M / $6.7M w/p).

A painting of a surrealist sewing machine: an armless, feminine naked body lays belly-down with a white sheet over its head. Red liquid, possibly blood, runs through a funnel onto their back, with the structure holding the funnel resembling a sewing machine. This makes the stream of blood reminiscent of red thread. The body's feet are being fed into a mound of plants and grass, but rises up to connect with the structure of the machine, creating a cycle of creation and destruction against a dark blue background.

Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle by Óscar Domínguez

The third-place lot was not by Magritte but by the Spanish surrealist Óscar Domínguez. Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, created around 1935, is one of the painter’s most well-known works. This is actually the third time this specific painting set an auction record for Domínguez. The first time was in 2008 at a Christie’s London impressionist and modern art sale, where it sold for £1.5M w/p. Then, a few years later in 2013, at another Christie’s London sale, it sold again for £2.1M w/p. And now, in 2023, again at Christie’s London, the painting reset the artist’s auction record at £3.8M / $4.6M (or £4.6M / $5.57M w/p). The only surprise at the Art of the Surreal sale was, not surprisingly, another of Magritte’s works. The untitled work is a multimedia piece using ink, gouache, and photomontage on card paper. It is also a relatively early work, created in the mid-1920s, and has been in the same private collection since 1969. Estimated to sell for between £250K and £350K, the work eventually sold for double the high estimate at £700K / $847K (or £882K / $1.06M w/p).

The house specialists did very well on Tuesday, with fourteen of the thirty-two available lots (44%) selling within their estimates. Another seven lots (22%) sold above, nine lots (28%) sold below, and only two lots (6%) went unsold. With a pre-sale estimate range of £27.5M to £42M, the entire sale brought in £31.74M / $34.41M.