Besides the big-ticket Klimt, what sold at London's summer evening sales – and what fell short

Generating ripples in the art scene, the record-breaking £85.3-million sale of Gustav Klimt's last portrait, Lady with a Fan, was without doubt the spotlight of this London's spring sale season. 

While the uplifting sale might have given the capital of Europe's high-value art market a confidence boost, the rest of the offerings both at Christie's and Sotheby's didn't appear to be quite as promising. Combined, their evening sale hammer total dipped 22.1% from last year, with only four lots selling above £5 million, excluding the Klimt. 

Such results seemed to follow the slow action at the New York marquee sales in May, where market correction seemed to have landed, signalling the continued cooling of a lava-hot art market.

Sotheby's sold Gustav Klimt last portrait, Lady with a Fan, for a record-breaking £85.3 million last week

Not counting Klimt's Lady with a Fan, Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction achieved a hammer total of £86.2 million (£105 million with fees) from 58 lots, against a low estimate of £90.5 million (Note: The Klimt was expected to fetch in the region of £65 million.) A total of nine works failed to sell, yielding a solid sell-through rate of 86%. 

At Christie's, there wasn't a major lot with an eight-figure estimate. Of the 66 on offer, 61 were sold, totalling a rather underwhelming £51.7 million (£63.8 million with fees), a significant drop from last June's £181 million and short of its £55.2-million low estimate. While its sell-through rate came to a stellar 92%, many lots that sold went for prices far below their estimates.

With that said, the sale's top two lots did fare well. The night's most expensive lot, Paul Signac’s Pointillist Calanque des Canoubiers (Pointe de Bamer), Saint-Tropez, came to the block with a last-minute third-party guarantee. After a gentle bidding between two telephone bidders, the luminescent work was hammered for £6.7 million, above a low estimate of £5.5 million. With fees, it sold for £8.02 million.

Following Signac’s price was that achieved by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s portrait Untitled (Pablo Picasso), a tribute from one 20th-century titan to another.

On an opening bid of £3.4 million, the work elicited a slightly more intense bidding match between two in-room bidders: one was Alex Acquavella, director at Acquavella Galleries in New York; the other was the Nahmad family, which holds one of the world's largest collections of Impressionist, Modern, and contemporary art. The Nahmads eventually won out with a bid of £5.35 million, for £6.46 million with premium.

Christie's | Paul Signac | Calanque des Canoubiers (Pointe de Bamer), Saint-Tropez (1896), Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 81.3 cm | Sold: £8,015,000

Jean-Michel Basquiat | Untitled (Pablo Picasso) (1984), Acrylic and oilstick on metal, 90.5 x 90.5 cm | Sold: £6,462,500 

As for Sotheby's, the top two lots, which held the same estimates between £8 to 12 million, didn't seem to generate much enthusiasm: Lucian Freud's nude portrait Night Interior received just two bids, one from its third-party guarantor, to be hammered at £8.1 million; Cy Twombly's blackboard painting Untitled went with one bid to its third-party guarantor, for £7.8 million. Their final prices with fees were £9.59 and 8.96 million respectively. 

One of the high points in the sale was bidding for Surrealist artist René Magritte's Le savoir, which combines two motifs that were central to Magritte’s work: the juxtaposition between night and day and the open doorway or threshold. 

Opening at £1.2 million, the work attracted at least four interested buyers, one bidding live in the salesroom and three on the phone with Sotheby's specialists. Setting off a bidding war that lasted for minutes, the work was eventually hammered for £3.4 million with a phone bidder, for £4.2 million with fees, against an estimate between £1.6 and 2.6 million.

Sotheby's | Lucian Freud | Night Interior (1968-69), Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 50.8 cm | Sold: £9,586,700

Sotheby's | Cy Twombly | Untitled (1970), Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 155 x 190 cm | Sold: £8,962,640

Sotheby's | | René Magritte | Le savoir (circa 1961), Gouache on paper, 34.9 x 26.7 cm | Sold £4,162,000

As with what we’ve witnessed over the recent seasons, London’s evening sales demonstrated the strength and resilience of the rising markets for emerging artists and auction newcomers.

Sotheby’s kicked off with "The Now" evening sale, which was a new format inaugurated only last year to spotlight works made by living artists. 

Bidding was lively for almost every one of the 13 lots in the sale – only L.A. abstract artist Mary Weatherford’s Yellow on Yellow, one of her signature large canvases incorporating neon lighting tubes, failed to find a new buyer. With fees, its sale total achieved £8.7 million, falling in the range of its estimate of £6.6 to 9.9 million.

Auction records were set for two rising stars: American video artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, whose photographic self-portrait Monster sold for £139,700 with fees, more than tripling its high estimate of £40,000; and Luxembourgish artist Michel Majerus's MoM Block Nr.57, referencing Jean-Michel Basquiat, fetched £660,400 against a low estimate of £250,000. 

Sotheby's | Arthur Jafa | Monster, Gelatin silver print mounted on aluminium, 182.9 x 127 cm | Sold: £139,700 (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1988 and printed in 2018, this work is number 9 from an edition of 10 plus 5 artist's proofs

Sotheby's | Michel Majerus | MoM Block Nr. 57 (1999), Silkscreen and lacquer on canvas, 200 x 180 cm | Sold: £660,400 (Auction record for the artist)

Sotheby's | Mary Weatherford | Yellow on yellow (2017), Flashe and neon on linen, 297.2 x 264.2 x 10.2 cm | Unsold

The house's arch-rival Christie’s started with a bang as well, with three of the four opening lots setting new auction records for artists, beginning with the post-90s French artist Diane Dal-Pra. Her fantastical painting of a dreamlike maternal embrace, It Belongs to You, swept past its high estimate of £50,000 to sell for £113,400 after fees – a new auction record for the artist.

Continued frenzy followed the next two self-portraits, by Sahara Longe and Louis Fratino, which realized £113,400 and £201,600 with fees respectively – both against low estimates of £40,000.

Christie's | Louis Fratino | Listening to a conch (2017), Oil and oil pastel on panel, 25.3 x 20.1cm | Sold: £201,600 (Auction record for the artist)

Christie's | Diane Dal-Pra | It Belongs to You (2020), Oil on linen, 146 x 114 cm | Sold: £113,400 (Auction record for the artist)

But ushering in the sale's most energetic moment was bidding for Romanian-born artist Victor Man's 2017 portrait of his wife, Weltinnenraum (World Within). A cluster of bids raised its sum beyond the high estimate of £150,000 in a matter of seconds, and deep bidding stretched for several minutes until a telephone bidder snagged the work for a hammer price of £1.4 million to applause in the room.

And auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen made a point by saying “Thank you for the underbidders. There must’ve been 25 of you.” After premium, the final sales price came to £1.7 million, minting a new benchmark for the artist.

Christie's | Victor Man | Weltinnenraum (World Within) (2017), Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 100.1cm (Auction record for the artist)

By contrast, the mood starting from lot 15, which was mainly followed by works of blue-chip artists, including Pablo Picasso and Lucian Freud, was nowhere near as energetic. Usually keen buyers, Asian and American collectors were noticeably quiet at Christie's sale. There were fewer specialists having flown in from Asia, and most bidding came from Europe. 

While the house pulled in a remarkable 92% sell-through rate, that was largely helped by consignors accepting bids far below estimates. Upon closer inspection, nearly a quarter of the works failed to meet low estimates. South African artist Marlene Dumas' work on paper Chained to the Bed for 15 Years, for instance, was hammered at £90,000 against an estimate of £200,000. 

Christie's | Marlene Dumas | Chained to the Bed for 15 Years (1986), Gouache and crayon on paper, 118.4 x 292.9 cm | Sold: £113,400

Other examples included works by well-established names, such as Yayoi Kusama's red-on-blue canvas INFINITY-NETS (OOAXT), Louise Bourgeois's gold sculpture Nature Study, and an early example of Cy Twombly's blackboard painting Untitled.

Another major disappointment was the failure to sell Gerhard Richter's Grünes Feld (Green Field), his early photorealist landscape that carried the sale's third-highest estimate at £4 million. 

Christie's | Louise Bourgeois | Nature Study, Gold porcelain, 72.4 x 33 x 41.3 cm | Sold: £567,000
Conceived in 1984-1996 and cast in 2007; The second artist’s proof from an edition of two plus two artist’s proofs

Christie's | Gerhard Richter | Grünes Feld (Green Field) (1969), Oil on canvas, 99 x 125 cm | Unsold

Similarly, works that failed to find buyers in Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Art Sale were mostly those by well-known artists, including two Monets – one from his series of the riverside at Vernon, another depicting the snow-capped Norwegian landscape – carrying estimates of £4.5 and 2 million respectively.

Evard Munch's large-scale portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell with an estimate of £2.5 million also went unsold. Meanwhile Paul Cézanne's forestscape Chemin à l'entrée de la forêt went for £1.6 million with fees, far below its low estimate of £2 million.

Sotheby's | Claude Monet | L'église de Vernon, temps gris (1894), Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 92.3 cm | Unsold

Sotheby's | Evard Munch | Karl Jensen-Hjell (1885), Oil on canvas, 191.2 x 100.3 cm | Unsold

Sotheby's | Paul Cézanne | Chemin à l'entrée de la forêt (circa 1879), Oil and charcoal on canvas, 55.2 x 46 cm | Sold: £1,560,500

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: The Now Evening Auction
Number of Lots: 14
Sold: 13
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 92.8%
Sale Total: £8,655,024

Sale: Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction, featuring Face to Face: A Celebration of Portraiture
Number of Lots: 59
Sold: 50
Unsold: 9
Sale Rate: 84.7%
Sale Total: £190,320,940

Auction House: Christie's London
Sale: 20th/21st Century Evening Sale
Number of Lots: 66
Sold: 61
Unsold: 5
Sale Rate: 92%
Sale Total: £63,824,100