Sothebys Delivers Steady £74m Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Led by £18m Bacon Self-Portrait

The London sale week continues with Sotheby's solid Contemporary Art Evening sale. The sale successfully secured a total hammer price of £58.4m (US$74.3m), just making its pre-sale low estimate of £57m. With 42 lots on offer, only four went unsold, generating a sell-through rate of 91%. 

16 out of all 42 lots held guarantees, either from a third party or the house, meaning that they were sure to be sold. This includes the leading lot of the sale - Francis Bacon's (1909 - 1992) Self-Portrait from 1975, which was hammered down at £14.35m, below its pre-sale low estimate of £15m. The painting was sold on a single bid to its guarantor at £16.5m with premium. 

Francis Bacon's 1975 Self-Portrait was sold to its guarantor below its estimate price

The artist's 1970s works are considered the most introspective and inwardly scrutinising phase of his career. These paintings are self-images that emerged from the sudden death of his former lover, George Dyer, in 1971. Compared to his works created right after his lover passed away, the present work’s composition is far less abject, the tone is contemplative and metaphorically rich. This is the only example of Bacon’s small portrait studies that features Letraset- jumbled letters tumbling from the artist’s mouth. 

Albert Oehlen's Selbstportrait Mit Leeren Händen sold for £6.23m

Ranking in number two is another self-portrait, executed in 1998 by Albert Oehlen (b. 1954). Titled Selbstportrait Mit Leeren Händen, or Self-portrait with empty hands, the masterpiece was valued at £4m - 6m before the sale and broke the artist’s auction record by selling for £6.23m. The oeuvre is the first and largest work in a series of three self-portraits that Oehlen made between 1998 and 2005. 

Vert Strié Noir Rouge by Wols realised £4.5m

Vert Strié Noir Rouge by German artist Wols (1913 - 1951) surprised everyone by igniting an intense bidding war that lasted for over 6 minutes. The abstract painting realised £4.5m, smashing through its pre-sale value of £400,000 - 600,000. The auctioneer started the bidding at £200,000 and bids were shooting from everywhere in the room. When the price soared to £1.2m, the competition was narrowed down to Sotheby's European Contemporary Art Chairman Claudia Dwek, Worldwide Chairman Helena Newman and Japan Chairman and Managing Director Yasuaki Ishiaka.

Sotheby's Japan chairman and managing director Yasuaki Ishiaka (middle)

New bidders jumped in at certain points and Ishiaka's client even offered jumping bids, hoping to push the other two keen bidders out of the game. Yet, the bidding did not end there. It continued until the price reached £3.8m and the hammer was put down for Newman who successfully acquired the artwork for her client. 

German artist Wols's self-portrait

The artwork was sold to a German phone bidder for over six times its estimated price, smashing the artist’s auction record. It replaced Jean-Michel Basquiat's Big Snow, one of the bought-in lots, as the third top lot. 

Top 3 lots

Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992). Self-Portrait

Lot no.: 9
Created in: 1975 (signed, titled and dated)
Size: 35.5 x 30.5 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • Private Collection, Belgium (acquired from the above in 1976)
  • Private Collection (by descent from the above)
  • Sotheby’s, London, 1 July 2015, Lot 9 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer price: £14,350,000
Price realised: £16,542,650

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954). Selbstportrait Mit Leeren Händen (Self-portrait with empty hands)

Lot no.: 15
Created in: 1998
Size: 200 x 144 cm

  • Galerie Bärbel Grässlin, Frankfurt
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1999

Estimate: £4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer price: £5,300,000
Price realised: £5,949,950

Wols (1913 - 1951). Vert Strié Noir Rouge (Green Stripe Black Red)

Lot no.: 23
Created in: 1946 - 1947
Size: 100.4 x 81.3

  • Galerie René Drouin, Paris
  • Alexander Iolas, Paris
  • Hélène Anavi Paulhiac, France (acquired from the above)
  • Sotheby’s, London, The Hélène Anavi Collection of Surrealist and Post-War Art, 27 March 1984, Lot 55 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £400,000 - 600,000
Hammer price: £3,800,000
Price realised: £4,526,200


Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby's London
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: 26 June 2019
Lots offered: 42
Sold: 38
Unsold: 4
Sale by lots: 91% 
Sale total: £69,143,300