Sotheby’s Achieves £150m in London Sale Spanning 500 of Art History Amidst Pandemic

Sotheby’s held their ‘Rembrandt to Richter’ sale last night amidst the pandemic. The sale is the first of its kind, presenting 65 works spanning 500 years of art history, from categories including Old Masters, Impressionist & Modern Art, Modern British Art and Contemporary Art. 

After three and a half hours of bidding, 62 lots were sold, bringing in a sale total of £149m. In this article, we are going to dissect the ‘mixed-category’ sale and analyse whether the sale result is up to scratch. 

The sale spans 500 years of art history 

Auctioneer Oliver Barker orchestrating the sale through television screens

Camera dollies were used to film the bidding process

Strategies in the face of the pandemic, Summary of sale data 

In response to the economic damage caused by COVID-19, Sotheby’s held their New York sale in the format of an auction marathon last month, presenting three sales in a row in one evening. The sale was done via live video at Sotheby’s London headquarters, where auctioneer Oliver Barker took bids from New York, London and Hong Kong in real-time through screens. 

The virtual auction earned high praise and the sale result was beyond expectations. 

The London sale this time adopts a similar format. Auctioneer Oliver Barker again took bids from the London headquarters. But as the situation of the pandemic gradually eases in England, a limited number of seats were provided at the venue for important clients. Like in wine auctions, clients sat at different tables while beverages were served. 

A limited number of seats were provided for important clients while beverages were served

As there is a surge in cases in Hong Kong, the responsibility of handling telephone bids from Asia landed in the hands of Sotheby’s London office. However, only a handful of artworks were acquired by Asian collectors, with the sale of a self-portrait by Amoako Boafo being the most surprising purchase. 

The sale originally featured 71 lots but 6 were withdrawn, including Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait of John Edwards which carried an estimate of £12m-18m. Therefore, the evening sale’s total estimate had dropped from £128m-185m to £108m-155m.  

Although most of the lots were sold for predictable prices, merely three out of the 65 lots failed to find a seller. The sale achieved a solid overall sale by lot of 95% and a total hammer price of £126m, a result beyond satisfactory given the current circumstances. 

Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait of John Edwards was withdrawn from the sale

In recent years, auction houses often look for ‘third-party guarantees’ for premium lots to reduce losses. (‘Third-party guarantee’ is known as ‘irrevocable bid’- IB, in Sotheby’s) 

To put it simply, before a sale, auction houses would seek buyers who will surely purchase the works, making sure that the items will not become bought-in lots. When a lot fetches a price higher than the IB/third-guarantor price, the auction house shares the profit with the guarantee. 

In Sotheby’s sale, there are 10 lots with IB which is not considered a large number. Yet, the 10 IB lots total an estimate of £52.6m, a staggering 40% of the overall estimate. 

In terms of the bidding results, 9 out of 10 IB lots successfully aroused the interest of numerous buyers. Only Henri Matisse’s Danseuse dans un interieur, carrelage vert et noir required the ‘rescue’ of its IB buyer. It was hammered down at £5.5m, far below its pre-sale estimate of £8m. 

The only lot which required the rescue of its IB buyer- Henri Matisse’s Danseuse dans un interieur, carrelage vert et noir 

In regards to sale periods, traditionally, auction seasons are divided into two periods- Spring Sales and Autumn Sales. Summer and Winter are generally ‘rest’ seasons for the auction world. But due to the pandemic, most auctions have to be postponed or rescheduled. Sotheby’s, therefore, decided to categorise their auctions in June and July under the title ‘Summer Sales’. 

The top 10 lots and bidding process are as follows. 

Joan Miró’s Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge) comes from his ‘Dream Painting’ series

The intensely rich blue of the sky is a symbol of Miró’s hometown Catalonia

Joan Miró|Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge), £22.3m 

Leading the sale was Joan Miró’s 1927 painting Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge) from his ‘Dream Painting’ series. The work which measures at 130 x 97.2 cm showcases the artist’s use of symbolism and metaphors which is at the same time poetic and mysterious. The red ‘hat’ in the painting could just as easily be a sardonically raised eyebrow while the white acts both as the figure’s body or a languorous plume of smoke. 

The artist situates the highly schematic represented motif on a monochrome background- the intensely rich blue of the sky, a symbol of the artist’s hometown Catalonia and what he calls the ‘colour of his dreams’. Works from the series can be located in museums around the globe, including London’s Tate Modern, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Basel’s Fondation Beyeler. 

According to Bloomberg, the work was from billionaire Ronald Perelman’s collection.

77-year-old Perelman is worth US$7.4 billion, making him the 211th-wealthiest person in the world. He owns the investment company MacAndrews & Forbes which specialises in investments in the retail sector. The business is currently the largest shareholder of the cosmetic company Revlon and engages in a diverse array of industries, from entertainment to cosmetics, security and biotechnology industries. 

It is said that Ronald Perelman is the seller of Joan Miró’s Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge)

With Revlon being in the red for years and the global economy in recession, Perelman’s investment empire is on the verge of collapse. The spokesman for MacAndrews & Forbes said in a statement last week that Perelman is looking into divesting his business. This “will allow [them] to be opportunistic and flexible in looking at new situations”. Perelman is also seeking opportunities to sell his shares in Scientific Games Corp. 

The painting was last seen on the auction stage in 1966, then acquired by artist Alexander Calder, a close friend of Miro’s. According to a Miro’s painting guide published in 1999, the work was owned by Revlon before it was sold in the sale.

The bidding started at £16m and ignited a battle between telephone bidders represented by Helena Newman, Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe, from the London office and Julian Dawes, Co-Deputy Head of Department for Impressionist and Modern Art, New York.

The painting landed in the hands of the client represented by Julian Dawes (right) 

The showdown lasted for 11 minutes with both parties making very cautious moves. Increments started at £500,000 and were lowered to £250,000, then to £100,000 and finally £50,000. After 20 bids, the hammer fell at £20.65m for Julian Dawes’ client, just slightly higher than its pre-sale estimate of £20m. The painting sold for £22.3m with premium. 

Miró’s Peinture (Etoile Bleue) from the same series broke the artist’s auction record in 2012 at Sotheby’s London, selling for £23.6m. Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge) failed to smash the record, but according to the acution house, the painting has become this season’s most expensive work sold in Europe. 

Danseuse dans un interieur, carrelage vert et noir was sold to its third-party guarantee (Irrevocable Bid) 

Henri Matisse|Danseuse dans un interieur, carrelage vert et noir, £6.48m

Another Perelman lot from the sale, according to Bloomberg, is Fauvism master Henri Matisse’s Danseuse dans un interieur, carrelage vert et noir.

Measuring at 49.9 x 61 cm, the painting depicts the Italian countess Carla Avogadro in a blue dancer’s costume, sitting at the artist’s studio which he often used as a backdrop in his works. The Venetian baroque chair in the painting was purchased by Matisse at an antique shop. In a letter to his friend, the artist mentioned that he ‘bowled over’ the chair and was ‘obsessed with it’.

Buyers seemed to be indifferent to the Matisse which allowed Helena Newman’s telephone bidder, most probably its IB buyer, to acquire it in just one bid. The painting was hammered down at £5.5m and realised £6.48m, far below its pre-sale estimate of £8m-12m. 

Rembrandt|Self-portrait of the artist, half-length, wearing a ruff and a black hat, £14.54m

The spotlight also fell on the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are amongst the most recognisable images in the entire canon of western art and, of the forty-one that survive, this 1632 self-portrait is one of only three remaining in private hands while others reside in museums. 

Dubbed the “Magician of Light and Shadow”, Rembrandt was lauded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. He is known for his atmospheric paintings with extraordinary nuances of detail sprang from a dramatic lighting scheme. 

The painting, in which Rembrandt depicts himself in the finery of the wealthy – ruffled lace collar and black hat with gold decorations – was composed when he was 26 and living the affluent life at a prominent mansion in Amsterdam.  

The self-portrait is quite small in size

Christopher Apostle successfully acquired the self-portrait for his client

Given the completion date and also the scale of the painting (21.8 x 16.3 cm), which is small enough to send around the world, other experts suggest it may have been made to impress the family of his future wife Saskia van Uylenburgh. The work is widely believed to have been created as a kind of a ‘business card’ to signify the painter’s social standing.

The auctioneer began the bidding at £10m and put the hammer down after 10 increments at £12.6m. The painting was sold at £14.54m with fees, a safe price within the range of its estimate (£12m-16m). It became the first runner-up of the sale, breaking the record of the most expensive Rembrandt self-portrait sold at auction. 

However, Rembrandt’s left hand in the portrait is significantly damaged which might in the end affect the price realised. 

Fernand Léger| Nature Morte, £12.15m 

Léger was deeply influenced by modern industrial technology and Cubism. He developed “machine art,” a style characterized by monumental mechanistic forms rendered in bold colours. His unique brand of Cubism is distinguished by his focus on cylindrical form and his use of robot-like human figures that expressed harmony between humans and machines.

Léger’s Nature Morte made its debut at auction with an estimate of  £8m -12m. The painting measures at 80.5 x 65cm and was created in 1914. It is composed of boldly outlined, overlapping shapes and coloured with strong tones, a representation of the artist’s ultimate Cubist vision. This dynamic example had never been at auction and had remained unseen since it was last exhibited in 1983, two years after it was acquired. 

The lot was pursued by mainly two telephone bidders represented by Helena Newman and Samuel Valette (Senior Specialist, Impressionist & Modern Art Department, London) respectively. Auctioneer Oliver Barker started the bidding at £7m and took alternating bids from both sides. After around 23 rounds of bidding, Barker put the hammer down for Valette’s client at £10.5m, selling the work for £12.15m with fees and pushing it to the second runner-up position of the sale.  

Auctioneer Oliver Barker

Léger is dubbed the master of ‘machine art’ 

Amoako Boafo|Self Portrait, £237,000

Amoako Boafo has undoubtedly experienced a meteoric rise recently in the art world. The African artist’s debut in auction happened only in February this year, with his work The Lemon Bathing Suit selling for £675,000 at Sotheby’s London’s evening sale, soaring through its pre-sale estimate of £30,000.  

Most contemporary artists who collaborate with fashion brands, like Daniel Arsham, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, often see a sharp rise in their net worths. Kim Jones, artistic director of Dior Men, has announced earlier this month their collaboration with Amoako Boafo in their Spring-Summer 2021 line. 

Born in 1984 in Ghana, Boafa studied art after graduating from high school. He later pursued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Known for large-scale portraits of Black subjects rendered in bold, gestural strokes, Boafo’s style has been compared to Egon Schiele’s. 

Boafo’s work has undoubtedly also benefited from the growing popularity of African art. The self-portrait featured in Sotheby’s sale was painted in 2017 and measures at 105.5 x 75.5 cm. It was knocked down for £190,000 and sold for £237,000 to an Asian bidder, surpassing its estimate of £80,000-120,000. 

Amoako Boafo is a rising star in the art world

Boafo’s self-portrait was sold to an Asian buyer

Top 10 lots

Lot 17|Joan Miró, 1893-1983, Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge), oil on canvas (Most expensive art sold this season in Europe)

Created in: 1927

Size: 130 x 97.2 cm


  • Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
  • Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
  • Sami Tarica, Paris
  • Theodore Schempp, Paris & New York (acquired from the above in the 1960s)
  • Private Collection, New York (sold: Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet, New York, 20th October 1966, lot 72) 
  • Perls Galleries, New York (purchased at the above sale)
  • Alexander & Louisa Calder, Saché (acquired from the above circa 1966)
  • Estate of Alexander Calder (in 1976)
  • Galerie Maeght, Paris (acquired from the above in 1979)
  • Private Collection, Miami (acquired from the above in 1980)
  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel & Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich (acquired jointly from the above in 1988)
  • Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988

Estimate: £20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Hammer price: £20,650,000

Price realised: £22,302,140

Lot 12|Rembrandt, 1606-1669, Self-Portrait, Wearing a Ruff and Black Hat, oil on oak panel(Auction record for a Rembrandt self-portrait )

Created in: 1632

Size: 21.8 x 16.3 cm


  • Vinot sale, Paris (Mannheim, Chevalier), 26–30 January 1891, to Henry Robert Brand, 2nd Viscount Hampden (according to a label on the reverse)
  • Thence by descent to Leila Emily, Viscountess Hampden, wife of Thomas Henry, 4th Viscount Hampden (d. 1965)
  • By whom anonymously sold ('The Property of a Lady'), London, Sotheby's, 8 April 1970, lot 20 (as Rembrandt), for £650 to Leegenhoek
  • J.O. Leegenhoek, Paris
  • By whom given to his wife
  • By whom sold in March 1996 to a private collector
  • By whom sold via Robert Noortman to a private collector, New York
  • By whom sold to Noortman Master Paintings
  • From whom acquired for the present collection on 20 September 2005

Estimate: £12,000,000 - 16,000,000

Hammer price: £12,600,000

Price realised: £14,549,400

Lot 28|Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, Nature Morte, oil on burlap 

Created in: 1914

Size: 80.5 x 65 cm

  • Provenance: 
  • Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris
  • Raoul La Roche, Paris (until at least 1955)
  • Private Collection, Basel
  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above in November 1979)
  • Acquired from the above in 1981

Estimate: £8,000,000 - 12,000,000

Hammer price: £10,500,000

Price realised: £12,157,500

Lot 16|Alberto Giacometti, 1906-1966, Femme Debout, bronze

Created in: 1958

Height: 72 cm


  • Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired in December 1958)
  • Private Collection
  • Harold Diamond, New York
  • Private Collection, Hong Kong (acquired from the above)
  • Bernstein und Waddington Gallery Ltd., Zurich (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired from the above in 1986

Estimate: £4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Hammer price: £9,200,000

Price realised: £10,676,800

Lot 20|Gerhard Richter, CLOUDS (WINDOW), oil on canvas in four parts

Created in: 1970

Size: 200 x 400 cm


  • Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
  • Ulbricht Collection, Dusseldorf
  • Achenbach Art Consulting, Dusseldorf
  • Frieder Burda, Baden Baden
  • Christie’s, New York, 18 November 1997, Lot 126
  • The Essl Collection, Vienna (acquired at the above sale)
  • Christie’s, London, Essl: 44 Works, 13 October 2014, Lot 10 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £9,000,000 - 12,000,000

Hammer price: £9,000,000

Price realised: £10,449,000

Lot 14|Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Femme Endormie, charcoal on primed canvas 

Created in: 1931

Size: 46 x 61 cm


  • Estate of the artist
  • Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Paris (by descent from the above)
  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above in 1985)
  • Acquired from the above in 1986

Estimate: £6,000,000 - 9,000,000

Hammer price: £6,250,000

Price realised: £7,316,750

Lot 31|Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, Danseuse dans un Intérieur, Carrelage Vert et Noir, oil on canvas

Created on: 21-22 August 1942

Size: 49.9 x 61 cm

  • Provenance: 
  • Martin Fabiani, Paris (acquired by 1943) 
  • Private Collection, Switzerland
  • Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989

Estimate: £8,000,000 - 12,000,000

Hammer price: £5,500,000

Price realised: £6,462,500

Lot 33|Bernardo Bellotto, 1722-1780, Dresden, a View of the Moat of the Zwinger, oil on canvas

Size: 48.3 x 80.4 cm


  • Private collection of the Duke of Saxe-Anhalt until 1925
  • With Galerie Bachstitz, Berlin, 1928
  • With Arthur Tooth, London
  • Max Emden, Hamburg, Germany
  • With Karl Haberstock, Berlin, acquired 30 June 1938 (inventory no. 1938/125)
  • Reichskanzlei, Berlin, acquired June 1938 (Führer inventory 115)
  • In store, Alt Ausee, Austria (number 1447)
  • Treuhandverwaltung für Kulturgut, Munich
  • Office of the Federal President, Bonn, on loan since 1961
  • Restituted to the heirs of Max Emden, 2019

Estimate: £3,000,000 - 4,000,000

Hammer price: £4,600,000

Price realised: £5,437,400

Lot 32|David Hockney, Pool on a Cloudy Day with Rain (Paper Pool 22), hand coloured and pressed paper pulp

Created in: 1978

Size: 183.8 x 216 cm


  • The artist
  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1989) 
  • Christie’s, New York, 16 May 2001, Lot 38 
  • Private Collection, New York
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Hammer price: £4,100,000

Price realised: £4,867,900

Lot 27|Lyonel Feininger, 1871-1956, Zottelstedt II, oil on canvas 

Created in: 1927

Size: 79.2 x 98.7 cm


  • Buchholz Gallery (Curt Valentin), New York (on commission from the artist in 1945)
  • Doris Rabinowitz, Florida (acquired by 1961. Sold: Sotheby’s, New York, 2nd May 1974, lot 253)
  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel (purchased at the above sale)
  • Acquired from the above in 1978

Estimate: £2,000,000 - 3,000,000

Hammer price: £3,100,000

Price realised: £3,728,900

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Rembrandt to Richter
Lots offered: 65
Sold: 62
Unsold: 3
Sold by lot: 95%
Sale total: £149,730,290