Royal Opera House Sells David Hockney’s Painting for £12.86m to Cover COVID Debts

The Royal Opera House (ROH) sold a David Hockney painting for £12.86m at Christie’s London amid a deaccessioning debate. The decision to sell the painting displeased the artist. Meanwhile, the union representing ROH staff said the funding from the sale is not nearly enough to compensate for months of lost income.

A Portrait of Sir David Webster was offered at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London on 22 October 2020. The sale presented 29 lots, two lots including Francis Bacon’s Head of Men were withdrawn before the sale. The presale estimate was lowered from £47.4m to £40.9m. Among all 27 lots offered, two were bought-in while the remaining lots raked in a sale total of £49.2m. The sum of hammer prices was £41.3m, higher than the presale estimate.  

Christie’s promotional material for 20th Century: London to Paris sale series

Christie’s auctioneers Jussi Pylkkänen and Cécile Verdier

The sale was part of Christie’s 20th Century: London to Paris, four hybrid-style live auctions in two continents. It was co-hosted by two auctioneers, Jussi Pylkkänen in London and Cécile Verdier in Paris, who took bids from clients in the saleroom, through phone banks and via Christie’s LIVE online bidding channel.

Lot 108|David Hockney (b.1937). A Portrait of Sir David Webster|The second top lot of the sale
Created in: 1971
Size: 152.8 x 184.5 cm
Provenance: Acquired directly from David Hockney by the Royal Opera House in 1971.
Estimate: £11,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer price: £11,000,000
Price realised: £12,865,000

The spotlight of the sale was definitely A Portrait of Sir David Webster by David Hockney, which was expected to fetch between £11m-18m. The lot carried a third-party guarantee, an arrangement to make sure the painting will be sold for an undisclosed amount. After the bidding started at £8.5m, the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen only received four bids and brought the hammer down at £11m, the low estimate of the painting. The painting was sold for £12.9m after premium to the buyer, who is likely to be the third-party guarantor.

Katharine Arnold, Christie’s co-head of Post-War and contemporary art Europe, bought the painting on behalf of her telephone bidder. She says ROH’s decision to sell ‘had not been easy’ and they started the sensitive discussions back in the summer. She says ‘the key mission of the Royal Opera House is to support the performing arts,’ rather than being a museum for the visual arts. ROH was confident about the sale with the work guaranteed by a third party from the start.

The painting was sold to Katharine Arnold’s telephone bidder with the paddle number 842

Sir David Webster was the chief executive of the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House sold the painting to raise funds amid the pandemic

A Portrait of Sir David Webster was created in 1971 to mark Sir David Webster’s retirement as general administrator of the Royal Opera House after 25 years’ service. From 1945 to 1970, Sir David Webster played a key part in the establishment of the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies. He turned the Royal Opera House from its early impoverished and provincial image to international importance as one of the top opera houses of the world.

Webster was invited to sit for a commemorative portrait and he had just one artist in mind for the job: David Hockney. Hockney refused the commission at first. He didn’t know Webster and, for his portraits, had always preferred painting family and friends such as Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark — who appear, with their cat, in the famous double portrait, Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy, now held in Tate’s collection.

David Hockney

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney|Tate’s Collection

As an avid lover of opera, however, Hockney soon changed his mind. In early 1971, he duly painted Portrait of Sir David Webster. In a bid to assert control over proceedings, Hockney insisted he painted Webster in his own studio rather than at Covent Garden or in the sitter’s Marylebone home.

Portrait of Sir David Webster also reveals Hockney’s Matissean flair for colour: from the rich greens in the sitter’s suit to the brilliant pink of the tulips. Then there’s the cerulean blue of the pocket square sticking out of Sir David’s jacket, which is matched by the colour of his left eye.

Hockney had lived in California in the mid-1960s, revelling in the brilliant sunshine and glorious light. By 1971, he was back in the UK, but the influence of the West Coast on his art was marked. The dazzling effect of light on water, a signature feature of his Californian swimming pool paintings, is comparable to the way light hits the translucent glass table in front of Webster — and passes through it onto the floor below.

David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was sold for a record US$90.3m in 2018

Hockney insisted he painted Webster in his own studio

Webster is said to have been delighted by Hockney’s portrait. Sadly, he wasn’t able to enjoy it for long. He passed away in May 1971, aged 67.

The auction record for David Hockney was set in 2018 by Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which was sold for US$90.3m, also a world record price for a work by a living artist. Jeff Koons later reclaimed the title when Rabbit was sold for US$91.07m.

Lot 110|Peter Doig (b. 1959). Boiler House|Top lot of the sale

Created in: 1993
Size: 200 x 275 cm

  • Victoria Miro, London.
  • Fruchter Collection, Antwerp.
  • Private Collection, San Francisco.
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner.

Estimate upon request (reported to be about £12m-18m)
Hammer price: £11,900,000
Price realised: £13,895,500

The top lot of the sale is Peter Doig’s Boiler House, measuring 200 x 275cm. The auction house didn’t reveal the estimate but it was reported to be between £12m-18m. The painting was hammered down at £11.9m after six bids and sold to the telephone bidder represented by Katharine Arnold. It was sold for £13.9m after premium.

Peter Doig is a Scottish painter, one of the most renowned living figurative painters. In 1991, he visited Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in northeast France. It was a utopian housing project that had opened in 1961 in Briey-en-Fôret, then been abandoned. The project inspired Doig’s seminal Concrete Cabins series, the largest and most distinctive cycle in Doig’s oeuvre.

Peter Doig

The painting was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation

Boiler House was first exhibited in Salzburg after Doig had won the Eliette von Karajan prize in 1994, and was included in Doig’s 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain. It depicts an isolated building in a forest. Rendered in fluid trails of impasto, with a stark anthropomorphic charge, Boiler House serves as a poignant meditation on memory, decay and displacement.

Lot 121|Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Study from the Human Body|Third top lot of the sale
Created in: 1991
Size: 198 x 147.8 cm

  • Collection of the Artist.
  • The Estate of the Artist.
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner.

Estimate: £4,500,000 - 6,500,000
Hammer price: £4,600,000
Price realised: £5,537,000

Auction summary
Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 22 October 2020
Lots offered: 27
Sold: 25
Unsold: 2
Sold by lot: 93%
Sale total: £49,220,500