Despite pandemic, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale achieved US$235m, led by US$84.6m Bacon triptych

The pandemic doesnt appear to have quelled buyers appetite for art. Sothebys Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Monday (29 June) achieved a solid total of US$235 million. Of the 30 works on offer, only one failed to sell. The virtual auction generated a total hammer sale of US$200 million, pulverising the pre-sale estimates by US$30m.

The marquee sale, adapted for the pandemic, was done via live video at Sothebys London headquarters, where star auctioneer Oliver Barker took bids from New York, Hong Kong and London in real time through screens. It marked Sotheby’s first attempt for a virtual auction in a new hybrid sale format that spans multiple categories.

Despite the unfamiliar format and looming concerns over the pandemic, the auction lived up to expectations with nearly 36% of its grand total coming from Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which sold for US$84.6 million with buyer’s premium.

The 1981 Bacon, which Sothebys guaranteed, was knocked down at US$74m, surpassing the US$60m low estimate. Sothebys contemporary department head Grégoire Billaut won the painting for his telephone bidder in New York after a 10-minute long bidding battle against an online opponent from China. 

Measuring 78 by 56 inches each, the work is one of just 28 large-scale triptychs in the painter’s oeuvre, and the sixth piece of its kind ever appeared at auction, according to Sotheby’s. 

Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) | oil on canvas, in three parts

Francis Bacon

Bacon’s triptychs are at the forefront of the Twentieth Century art. Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus was exhibited at some of the most reputed museums and private collections worldwide including the Marlborough Gallery and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as the Tate Gallery in London, among celebrated others.

The highest record for the artist at auction was set in 2013, when Christie's sold the Three Studies of Lucien Freud (1969) triptych to an unidentified client for a whopping US$142.4 million.

The Bacon was not the only highflier at the sale. Depicting a seemingly spontaneous brushstroke placed against a backdrop of Ben-Day dots, Roy Lichtenstein’s White Brushstroke I was knocked down at US$23.5m, within an estimate range between US$20m and US$30m.

White Brushstroke I (1965) | oil and Magna on canvas 

The bidding started at US$18m and quickly rose to US$21m. It then steadily climbed to US$23.5m before the hammer fell. The work sold for US$25.4m with fees. 

Guaranteed by third party (known as "irrevocable bid", equivalent to the third-party guarantee at Christies), the 1965 work is one of Lichtenstein’s rarefied Brushstroke series that features enlarged brushstrokes, which are screen-printed onto paper in a manner usually found in advertisements and comic books.

The subversive series is considered an essential example of the Pop Art movement. It takes a satirical approach toward Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Janet Sobel, who often use idiosyncratic brushstrokes and painting techniques as symbols of personal expression.

Roy Lichtenstein

Eight of the artists Brushstroke series have found their way into premium art museums around the world, including Art Institute of Chicago, Kunsthaus Zürich, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to name but a few.

Another strong price was set for Untitled (Head) by Jean Michel Basquiat. Also guaranteed by third party, the work sold to an online bidder for US$15.2m with fees, becoming Sotheby's most expensive work ever sold to an online bidder. It also set a new world auction record for a work on paper by Basquiat.

Starting at US$7m, the bid quickly soared to US$10m. From there it went up in steady increments of US$100,000. It eventually came down to a battle between three bidders, two over the phone and one from online. It was finally knocked down at US$13.1m after more than eight fraught minutes, exceeding the high estimate price of US$12m set by the auction house.

Untitled (Head) (1982) | oilstick, ink and acrylic on paper

The work features vivid splash of colour and Basquiat’s signature scribbling, which often compared to artists like Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Basquiat was also known as a protégé of Andy Warhol, whose works – Cross (1982) and Knives (1981-82) – also fetched US$2.2m and US$1.9m without fees at the sale respectively.

Other highlights included Matthew Wong's The Realm of Appearances, which sold far ahead of the US$80k high estimate for US$1.5m hammer price; Donald Judd’s Untitled (DSS 25) from 1962 knocked down at US$8.4m, well beyond the estimated US$6m. With fees, the result was US$9.8m; Clyfford Still’s PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1) was hammered for US$25m and sold for US$28.7m after premium. 

Top five lots

Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992)
Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus

Lot no: 105
Size: 78 by 56 in. (198 by 147.5 cm)
Painted in 1981

Marlborough International Fine Art, Vaduz
Acquired by Hans Rasmus Astrup from the above in 1987

Estimate: US$60,000,000 - 80,000,000
Sold for: US$84,550,000

Clyfford Still (1904 - 1980)
PH-144 (1947-Y-No.1)

Lot no: 109
Size: 68 ½ by 59 in. (174 by 149.9 cm)
Painted in 1947

Mr. and Mrs. Max B. E. Clarkson, Buffalo (acquired in 1959)
Marlborough Gallery, New York 
Acquired by the present owner from the above in October 1972 

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Sold for: US$28,739,000

Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997)
White Brushstroke I

Lot no: 107
Size: 48 by 56 in. (121.9 by 142.2 cm)
Painted in 1965

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC#348)
Irving Blum, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1965)
Christie's New York, 4 May 1993, Lot 31 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above sale)
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Sold for: US$25,417,000

Jean Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)
Untitled (Head)

Lot no: 103
Size: 29 ¾ by 22 in. (75.6 by 55.9 cm)
Painted in 1982

Estate of the Artist
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1990)
Private Collection
Philips New York, 13 November 2000, Lot 21
Private Collection
Acquired by the present owner from the above

Estimate: US$9,000,000 - 12,000,000
Sold for: US$15,184,900

Donald Judd (1928 - 1994)

Lot no: 106
Size: 52 by 43 by 5 in. (132.1 by 109. 2 by 12.7 cm)
Executed in 1982

Green Gallery, New York 
Mr. Lewis V. Winter, New York (acquired from the above in 1963) 
Thence by descent to the present owners 

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Sold for: US$9,831,600