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Christie’s London Art Of The Surreal Sale

March 13, 2024
A painting of a man in a bowler hat facing away from the viewer, with a floating baguette and wine glass against his back.

L’ami intime by René Magritte

On Thursday, March 7, Christie’s hosted their annual Art of the Surreal sale. These sales are often relatively short and tend to do rather well. And this year was no exception. The expected star of the sale was the 1958 painting L’ami intime by the Belgian surrealist master René Magritte. Seven of the twenty-five available lots, including the three most valuable, were by Magritte, making him by far the most represented artist in the sale. The painting was previously in the collection of Gilbert and Lena Kaplan and had not been at auction since 1980 when it sold at Sotheby’s London for £90K. Christie’s generated a good amount of attention when they announced that this Magritte would be crossing the block soon. Magritte has become one of the most popular twentieth-century artists on the secondary market, by far the most popular surrealist painter, beating out even Salvador Dalí. But while Magritte’s top paintings sold at auction in the past ten years have normally been from his L’empire des lumières series, L’ami intime features a far more well-known image closely associated with the artist: the man in the bowler hat. Magritte first featured this figure back in 1926 but gained the most recognition from the 1964 painting The Son of Man. Accordingly, Christie‘s specialists assigned L’ami intime an estimate range of £30 million to £50 million. Several people even predicted that it would surpass the hammer prices of some of the L’empire des lumières paintings and set Magritte’s auction record. However, the painting fell slightly short of these expectations, hammering at £29 million / $37.1 million (or £33.66M / $43.1M w/p). While it perhaps didn’t do as well as some had hoped, it still became the second most valuable painting by Magritte ever sold at auction, beating out the L’empire des lumières painting sold for $36.5 million as part of the Mo Ostin collection at Sotheby’s New York in May 2023.

A surrealist painting of a nude woman turning into the sky

La magie noire by René Magritte

L’ami intime stood head and shoulders above all the other lots, but that was not all the Art of the Surreal had to offer. Magritte dominated the top lots, with second place belonging to La magie noire. A nude woman holds a white rose, standing very statuesquely. The black magic indicated in the title is how, from the head down, she slowly turns into part of the sky as seen behind her. When he painted this picture in 1946, he had been working on this particular theme for over a decade, starting with a similar painting from 1934. Some consider these paintings groundbreaking, as Magritte had brought surrealism to the long-established classical-style nude. This iteration of La magie noire last sold at Christie’s London in 2017 for £1.35M hammer (£1.625 million / $2.02 million w/p). This time around, it sold within its £3 million to £5 million estimate, hammering at £3.8 million / $4.86 million (or £4.64 million / $5.94 million w/p).

Immediately following L’ami intime was another man in a hat, this one entitled Le paysage de Baucis. It shows Magritte’s version of an invisible man, with just eyes, lips, and a nose floating between a fedora and an empty brown suit. The work’s title, however, implies something far deeper. Baucis is a figure from The Metamorphoses by Ovid who, with her husband Philemon, provided shelter and food to Zeus and Hermes traveling in disguise. In return, the gods destroyed their village and killed their ungrateful neighbors, sparing them and turning their hovel into a beautiful temple. According to Christie’s specialists, “The notions of disguise, perception, revelation and of the destruction of the landscape all invoked in this tale, can be seen to chime with the strange, partial apparition depicted in Le paysage de Baucis.” Christie’s predicted this unusual portrait would sell for between £2.4 million and £3 million. Partially making up for where L’ami intime fell short, Le paysage de Baucis sold for £3.2 million / $4.1 million (or £3.9 million / $5 million w/p).

A portrait of a man in a brown suit and fedora, but with his face invisible, except the eyes, nose, and mouth.

Le paysage de Baucis by René Magritte

Four of the twenty-five available lots sold for more than double their high estimates, including the single lots by two female artists represented in the sale: Meret Oppenheim and Hannah Höch. Furthermore, both lots by the Romanian surrealist painter Victor Brauner also greatly exceeded their high estimates, with the final lot of the sale, Chasse à l’âme, selling for £170K / $217.7K (or £214.2K / $274.3K w/p) against an initial high estimate of £70K. These surprises were part of the nine lots that sold for over their estimates, making up 36% of the sale. Ten lots sold within their estimates, giving Christie’s specialists a 40% accuracy rate. Three lots (12%) sold for under their estimates, while another three went unsold. In total, the sale brought in £49.5 million / $63.39 million, just squeaking by its minimum presale estimate of £48,020,000. Compared to last year’s Art of the Surreal sale, it appears the market for these kinds of paintings is holding up rather well. Last year, Christie’s specialists had a 44% accuracy rate, with Magritte paintings again reaching the top. It indicates a strong, continuing demand for works not only by Magritte but also by Joan Miró, Remedios Varo, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy.