Magritte’s US$78.4 million surrealist masterpiece sets new auction record

This season’s London Auction Week is the first time Christie’s and Sotheby’s faced each other directly in 2022. The two parties' Evening Sales both garnered £222 million pounds (around US$295 million dollars).

Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale’s most expensive lot was Rene Magritte’s L'Empire des Lumieres (The Empire of Light) painting. It sold for £59.4 million pounds (around US$78.4 million dollars), which set a new auction record for the Belgian Surrealist Master.

Amongst 54 lots offered, 46 pieces were sold – with a sale rate of 85 per cent and a sale total of £192.1 million pounds (around US$256.2 million dollars).

Sotheby's London live auction site

Lot 114 | Rene Magritte | L’Empire des lumieres, Oil on canvas

Created in 1961
114.5 x 146cm

  • Acquired from the artist in 1961

Expected to fetch more than US$60 million

Hammer Price: £51,500,000

Sold: £59,422,000 (around US$78.4 million)

The winning bid was by Alex Branczik for his client with paddle number 166

Auctioneer Helena Newman (Chairman, Europe) started the bidding at £40 million pounds. After more than 15 bids, the hammer was dropped at £51.5 million pounds. The winning bid was by Alex Branczik (Chairman, Modern and Contemporary Art Department, Asia) for his client with paddle number 166. In the end, it sold for £59.4 million (around US$78.4 million dollars), with buyer’s premium – more than double of Magritte’s previous auction record.

Magritte's previous auction record was set by the painting, Le Principe du Plaisir (The Pleasure Principle). In 2018, it amassed US$26.8 million dollars at Sotheby's New York.

The composition of L’Empire des lumieres is also composed of contrasts. The night-time street scene depicted in the painting is believed to be a street near the Parc Josaphat in Brussels, where the artist moved in 1954. It is juxtaposed by a bright blue sky above.

Two contrasting scenes appear on the same canvas – exuding a surreal feeling. This movie-like image later became the inspiration for a scene in the 1974 Golden Globe-winning horror movie, The Exorcist.

Rene Magritte

Le Principe du Plaisir (1937) | 73 x 54.5 cm | Sold: US$26.8 million | Sotheby's New York, November 2018

Magritte first started work on L’Empire des lumieres in 1948, where the first version of the painting was bought by Nelson Rockefeller. Throughout his career, Magritte painted a series of 17 oil paintings known as the L’Empire des lumieres series. Examples are held in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

The L’Empire des lumieres painting featured in this year's auction was created in 1961 for the Belgian Baroness, Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet. She is the daughter of Pierre Crowet, an early patron of Magritte.

After the painting was completed, it remained in the Crowet family’s collection. From 2009 to 2020, it was on loan to the Magritte Museum in Brussels.

Measuring 114.5 by 146 cm, this work is the largest horizontal version amongst the 17 Empires of Light oil paintings. Another larger work from the series is in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice – measuring 195.4 by 131.2 cm. The work uses a vertical frame composition.

Lot 106 | Claude Monet | Nympheas, Oil on canvas

Created in 1914-1917
130.5 x 100cm

  • Michel Monet, Giverny (the artist's son; by descent from the artist)
  • Katia Granoff, Paris
  • Charles E. Slatkin Galleries, New York
  • Mrs Bernard Lande, Canada (acquired by 1960)
  • Sale: Christie’s, New York, 31st October 1978, Lot 24
  • Alfred Taubman, United States (purchased at the above sale)
  • Fukuoka Broadcasting Corporation, Japan
  • Private Collection, Japan (acquired from the above circa 1995)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: £15,000,000 – 20,000,000

Hammer Price: £20,000,000

Sold: £23,228,500 (around US30.6 million)

The sale’s second most expensive lot was Claude Monet’s Nympheas painting.

The auctioneer started the bidding at £10 million pounds. After more than 10 bids, the hammer was dropped at £20 million pounds. The winning bid was by Simon Stock (Senior Specialist, Impressionist and Modern Art Department, Europe and Asia), for his client with paddle number 214. In the end, the painting fetched £23.2 million pounds (around US$30.6 million dollars), with buyer’s premium.

Created from 1914 to 1917, this Water Lilies was produced during a world devastated by the First World War. It was a time when Monet's second wife, Alice Hoschede and eldest son, Jean, both passed away. Depressed and with first signs of cataracts, the artist stopped painting for a time. Fortunately, one of his friends – French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) – encouraged the artist to paint again.

The theme of water lilies – which became not only Monet’s most celebrated series of paintings, but one of the most iconic images of the Impressionist movement dominated the artist’s work over several decades. It recorded the changes in his style and his constant pictorial innovations. This present large-scale oil painting, dates from the last great period of these experiments as the artist moved further and further towards the realm of abstraction.

Claude Monet (right) with his friend, Georges Clemenceau (left) 

Lot 124 | David Hockney | Garrowby Hill, Acrylic on canvas

Created in 2017
121.9 x 243.8 cm

  • Pace Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2018

Estimate: £7,500,000 – 10,500,000

Hammer Price: £12,050,000

Sold: £14,093,500 (around US$18.6 million)

The sale’s third most expensive lot was David Hockney's landscape painting, Garrowby Hills. It sold for £14.09 million pounds (around US$18.6 million dollars), with buyer’s premium.

Considered as one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, Hockney is known for his landscapes and figures. In 2018, he became the most expensive living artist sold at auction with his painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which sold for US$90 million dollars.

A rolling landscape of sublime vastness, Garrowby Hill illuminates David Hockney’s multi-perspectival approach to painting. Created in 2017, it is a magnificent return to one of the most celebrated subjects of his oeuvre: the ever-changing East Yorkshire landscape.

The composition of the present work is based on Hockney’s beloved 1998 painting of the same name, Garrowby Hill, in the Collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  one of the greatest compositions of Hockney’s oeuvre. In terms of iconicity, Garrowby Hill is comparable to the dramatic pool paintings of the 1960s, the conversation pieces of the 1970s, and the meandering California landscapes of the 1980s and 1990s.

This painting further set the tone for the definitive Yorkshire landscapes of the 2000s, and, crucially, inspired Hockney’s striking Grand Canyon panoramas. That Hockney returns to this composition again 20 years later attests to its significance.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 118 | Claude Monet | Massif de chrysanthemes, Oil on canvas

Created in 1897
130.7 x 88.8cm

  • Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the artist on 27th March 1907)
  • Marc François, Paris (acquired from the above on 21st April 1920)
  • Albert Kahn, Detroit
  • E. & A. Silberman Galleries, New York
  • Muriel Bultman Francis, New Orleans (acquired from the above circa 1937 and until at least 1986)
  • Acquavella Galleries, New York
  • Alan Strassman, Massachusetts (sold: Sotheby’s, New York, 11th November 1987, lot 35)
  • Private Collection, Japan (acquired by 1995)
  • Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1998. Sold: Sotheby’s, New York, 10th May 2001, lot 216)
  • Henryk de Kwiatkowski Family Collection (purchased at the above sale. Sold: Christie’s, New York, 3rd November 2004, lot 2)
  • Purchased at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £10,000,000 – 15,000,000

Hammer Price: £7,000,000

Sold: £8,291,500 (around US$10.8 million)

A major focus of the sale was a series of five masterpieces by Monet from the same private collection. But before the auction started, the auctioneer announced that the Les Demoiselles de Giverny painting was withdrawn and reserved for the New York auction in May. 

According to Western media sources, the collector is Daniel Snyder – an American tycoon who is also the owner of American football team, Washington Commanders. According to Forbes, Snyder is estimated to be worth US$4 billion dollars. 

Lot 121 | Claude Monet | Les Demoiselles de Giverny, Oil on canvas

Created in 1894
65 x 100cm

  • Isaac Montaignac, Paris (acquired by 1895)
  • Galerie Georges Petit, Paris
  • Dr Francisco Llobet, Buenos Aires (acquired from the above circa 1920-23)
  • Private Collection, Buenos Aires (by descent from the above)
  • Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1999. Sold: Christie’s, New York, 1st May 2012, lot 11)
  • Purchased at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £15,000,000 – 20,000,000

This lot was withdrawn from the auction. Instead, the auctioneer announced that it will be reserved for New York auction in May. 

Lot 112 | Pablo Picasso | Buste de femme accoudee, gris et blanc, Oil on canvas

Created in 1938
61 x 50 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Private Collection (from the above)

Estimate: £10,000,000 – 15,000,000

Hammer Price: £10,200,000

Sold: £11,968,300 (around US$15.7 million)

Lot 123 | Vincent van Gogh | A Pair of Lovers (Eglogue en Provence), Oil on canvas

Created in 1888
32.7 x 22.8cm

  • Joseph M. Ginoux & Marie Ginoux-Julien, Arles (acquired by 1898; probably acquired from the artist)
  • L. Molinard, Marseille (acquired by 1901)
  • Henri Bernstein, Paris (sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 8th June 1911, lot 29)
  • Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
  • Jos. Hessel, Paris
  • Galerie Vildrac, Paris
  • Hermann Lie, Oslo (acquired by 1928)
  • J. E. Werenskiold, Lysaker, Oslo (acquired by 1968)
  • Private Collection (sold: Sotheby's, London, 25th March 1986, lot 13)
  • Private Collection, London (purchased at the above sale. Sold: Sotheby’s, London, 26th June 2001, lot 10)
  • Private Collection (purchased at the above sale)
  • Private Collection, Japan (acquired from the above. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 7th May 2013, lot 59)
  • Purchased at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £7,000,000 – 10,000,000

Hammer Price: £8,500,000

Sold: £10,015,000 (around US$13.2 million)

Lot 126 | Gustave Caillebotte | Portrait de Monsieur R. (Reyre), Oil on canvas

Created in 1877
81 x 105cm

  • Monsieur Reyre (acquired from the artist)
  • Private Collection, France (by descent from the above. Sold: Christie’s, London, 6th February 2001, lot 9)
  • Purchased at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Hammer Price: £5,600,000

Sold: £6,682,900 (around US$8.7 million)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s London

Sale: Modern and Contemporary Evening Auction 

Sale Date: 2 March 2022

Number of lots: 54

Sold: 46

Unsold: 8

Sale Rate: 85.1%

Sale Total: £192,161,150 (around US$256.2 million)