Asian collectors drive Sotheby's London US$194.2m sale, with a Richter going to Mainland buyer for US$29.2m

On 1 March, Sotheby's kicked off its marquee auctions of 2023 with a Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction that brought in a sale total of £160.9 million (US$194.2 million). Of the 36 lots on offer, 30 were sold and six failed to find new buyers, achieving a sell-through rate of 83%. 

Impressively, five works sold in excess of £15 million at the masterpiece-filled sale, a record high at any of its London sale season since 2015. Star lots included two newly-restituted works – Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 Murnau mit Kirche II, the sale's most expensive lot which set the artist's auction record at £37.2 million (US$44.9 million), and Edvard Munch's four-meter-long painting Dance on the Beach, which realised £16.9 million (US$20.5 million) and became the sale's fifth most expensive painting.

Other leading lots included works by Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, and Pablo Picasso. All top five lots were backed by irrevocable bids ahead of the sale to ensure they would sell. 

Collectors from Asia were notably active throughout the sale – the Richter was sold to a collector in China for £24.2 million (US$29.2 million), and an Asian collector also underbid the Picasso.

Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) sold for a record-breaking price

Lot 115 | Wassily Kandinsky | Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II), Oil on canvas
Created in 1910
96 x 105.5 cm

  • Siegbert Samuel Stern, Berlin (acquired by 1924)
  • Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann, Berlin; Locarno; Amsterdam; Bloemendaal and Hilversum (widow of the above; acquired by inheritance from the above in 1935)
  • Myrtil Frank, Berlin and Amsterdam (probably acquired from the above between December 1941 and April 1943)
  • Karl A. Legat, The Hague
  • Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (acquired from the above in 1951)
  • Restituted to the heirs of Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann in 2022

Estimate upon request (in the region of $45 Million)
Hammer Price: £33,000,000

Sold: £37,196,800 (US$44,874,220)

Bidding for the lot opened at £28 million and quickly reached £33 million, selling to a buyer represented by the house's star auctioneer Oliver Barker, who was most likely its third-party guarantor. With fees, the lot achieved a final price of £37.2 million (US$44.9 million). Though short of Sotheby's pre-sale estimate of US$45 million, it becomes the artist's most expensive painting ever sold at auction. 

Kandinsky's previous auction record stood at  £33 million (US$42 million), set by Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines), dated 1909, which was offered at Sotheby's London in 2017.

The present work, executed in 1910, represents a key transformative period in Kandinsky's career, when he was exploring the limits of representation and searching for a new visual language that would communicate what he felt were essential truths about human experience – theories of which he articulated in his seminal text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911.

In the summer of 1908, Kandinsky and his lover visited the Bavarian mountain village of Murnau, a place they quickly fell in love with and purchased a house to spend long summers. Its scenic surroundings then became a central motif in paintings from Kandinsky's breakthrough years of 1909 to 1911, which saw him take his first steps towards abstraction, paving the way for the next generation of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, leading figures of Abstract Expressionism in post-war America. 

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky | Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines) | Sold for £33,008,750 in 2017

Soon after it was painted, the work was acquired by Johanna Margarete Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern, co-founders of a prosperous textile business in Berlin. Together the couple were at the center of the glittering cultural scene of 1920s Berlin, with a social circle that included Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka. The Sterns were also influential in the Jewish community, having provided assistance for a charitable organization that supported impoverished Eastern-European Jews. 

Unfortunately, as the Nazi grip on Germany tightened, their flourishing lives were turned upside down. Two years after Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, anti-Jewish measures continued to escalate, and Johanna Margarette was eventually forced to flee Germany.

Though arriving in the Netherlands, the persecution towards her did not end. In order to survive, she had no choice but to sell her art collection consisting of well over 100 paintings, which ended up being dispersed across the globe. While she went into hiding in Bussum, near Amsterdam, she was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was murdered in 1944.

Over the years, the descendants of the Sterns have been on trail of the lost art collection. In 2013, this Kandinsky painting was found on the walls of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, where it had been hanging since 1951. 

Murnau with Church II was hung in the dining room at Villa Stern

Lot 112 | Gerhard Richter | Abstraktes Bild, Oil on canvas in two parts
Executed in 1986
260 x 400 cm

  • Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
  • Mary Boone Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the above in June 1986)
  • John and Mary Papajohn, Des Moines
  • Sotheby’s New York, 14 November 2007, lot 21 (Sold: US$9,785,000)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate upon request (in the region of $25 Million)
Hammer Price: £20,800,000

Sold: £24,179,000 (US$29,169,546)

Attracting some of the liveliest biddings, Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild was the sale's second most expensive painting. As soon as bidding opened at £15 million, the work drew keen interests from Asia, with Wendy Lin, Chairman of Sotheby's Asia, and Deputy Chairman Jen Hua placing alternative bids for their respective clients. 

After seven bids, the lot hammered at £20.8 million, selling for £24.2 million (US$29.2 million) with fees to a collector from China represented by Jen Hua.

The present lot last appeared at auction in 2007, when it fetched US$9.79 million at Sotheby's New York to produce the artist's second highest price achieved at auction. With a final price of US$29.2 million, its value has increased threefold in 16 years. 

Jen Hua winning the lot for her client in China with paddle number 218

Among the world’s leading contemporary artists, Gerhard Richter is at the top of the list in terms of status, fame and net worth. He stepped into the field of abstract art around the 1960s and has already made a name for himself with his distinctive style in the 1980s.  

Ceaselessly interrogating the limits of representation, the artist pioneered a completely new stylistic direction with an innovative tool: a homemade hard-edged plastic squeegee. 

His creative process then became not one of addition, but rather of subtraction, where he methodically disturbs, conceals and scraps layers of detailed under-paintings by dragging a squeegee across the canvas, creating abstracts of mesmerising dynamism and immense details.

Painted in 1986 at the apex of a career-breakthrough, Absktraktes Bild (596) constitutes one of only 24 paintings that Richter created in a scale of 380 cm wide or more. Only 8 of these works remain in private hands – the majority are today housed in museums across the globe, including the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, National Galerie zu Berlin, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, among others.

Gerhard Richter

Lot 108 | Pablo Picasso | Fillette au bateau, Maya, Oil on canvas
Painted on 4 February 1938
73.3 x 60 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Thomas Ammann, Zurich (acquired from the above in 1991)
  • Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • Gianni Versace, USA (acquired from the above)
  • Sotheby’s, London, 17 December 1999, lot 18 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: £15,500,000

Sold: £18,089,300 (US$21,822,932)

As 2023 marks the 50th anniversary since Pablo Picasso's death, both Sotheby's and its rival Christie's have brought the work of the Cubist master to their London salerooms to commemorate the artist's great legacy.

Bidding for the present lot opened at £9 million and saw at least four buyers chase the work, including clients represented by specialists from Asia, London and Americas. After minutes of active biddings, Tania Remoundos, Deputy Head of Impressionist & Modern Art Department, London, outbid an Asian buyer with a bid of £15.5 million, winning the lot for her client with paddle number 250.

Selling for £18.1 million (US$21.8 million), it was the sale's third most expensive lot. 

The client represented by Phoebe Liu (middle in the front row), Client Liaison, Asia Desk, was the lot's underbidder

The women in Picasso's life have always been at the centre of his oeuvre. In 1935, a new muse arrived in the form of his daughter Maya, named María de la Conceptión after Picasso’s beloved late sister, who was the fruit of the passionate love between his great love and mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was born in secret while Picasso was still married to his first wife, the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

Maya's birth coincided with a personal crisis which Picasso later referred to as 'the worst period of his life', during which he was to deal with a lengthy divorce battle with Olga and the associated loss of his beloved property, while facing the worsening political situation in Europe. And Maya's arrival had provided an immense source of happiness for Picasso.

Maya was the daughter of Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter

Picasso and Maya

After a nearly year-long abstinence from painting, between January 1938 and November 1939, Picasso painted around fourteen portraits of Maya, forming the most impressive series the artist's ever devoted to a single child.

Although quite diverse in style, each of these paintings is almost the same in their compositional setup, with the focus solely on Maya, depicting her in the privacy of her own world. The use of multiple angles within her face also echoes Picasso's depictions of her mother, Marie-Thérèse Walter. 

Kept by the artist himself until his death in 1973, the painting subsequently went into the hands of Gianni Versace, before selling for US$5.98 million at Sotheby's London in 1999 as part of the late fashion designer’s collection of 25 works by Picasso. 

Lot 106 | Lucian Freud | Ib Reading, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1997
134 x 158 cm

  • Acquavella Galleries, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997

Estimate: £15,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: £15,000,000

Sold: £17,514,800 (US$21,129,855)

Coming fourth place at a final price of £17.5 million (US$21.1 million) with fees, Lucian Freud's Ib Reading was last seen publicly more than 20 years ago in an exhibition in New York. The sale marked the work's auction debut, as it has remained in the same private collection since it was acquired shortly after its creation.

Initially more known as the grandson of neurologist Sigmund Freud, Lucian Freud earned a reputation for himself with his evocative portrait paintings which are distinguished by thick paint application and a focus on both the physical and psychological flaws of his subjects.

Lucian Freud

The present work in the artist's studio

In order to capture the human body in all its frailty, Freud would paint exclusively from life, putting his subjects – only those who were within his inner circle – under intense direct observation. In Ib Reading, he turns his masterful and exacting gaze and brush towards his daughter Isobel Boyt, reflecting a familial intimacy between artist and sitter. 

It is one of several portraits Freud painted of Isobel at different ages throughout his career. Painted in 1997, the present lot shows Isobel holding Marcel Proust’s novel, Remembrance of Things Past, on her lap, her feet resting on the chair opposite in a pose of serenity and relaxed contentment. 

While Freud was known for working slowly – notoriously demanding months of his sitter’s time, Isobel read the entirety of Proust’s 4,000-page volume during the hours she sat for her father.

Lot 110 | Edvard Munch | Dans på stranden (Reinhardt-frisen) (Dance on the Beach (The Reinhardt Frieze)), Tempera on canvas
Painted in 1906-07
90 x 402.6 cm

  • Deutsches Theater, Kammerspiele (Max Reinhardt), Berlin (acquired from the artist in 1907 and until circa 1912-13)
  • Fritz Gurlitt Gallery (Wolfgang Gurlitt), Berlin (acquired by 1914)
  • Dr Curt Glaser, Berlin (acquired by 1916)
  • Internationales Kunsthaus, Berlin, 9 May 1933, lot 267 (consigned by the above)
  • Oslo Auksjonsforretning, Oslo, 16 April 1934, lot 20
  • Thomas Olsen, Norway (acquired by 1938)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner 

Estimate: £12,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: £14,500,000

Sold: £16,940,300 (US$20,436,778)

Another headline lot of the sale, Edvard Munch's Dance on the Beach drew interests from at least four buyers, before hammering on a bid of £14.5 million and selling for £16.9 million (US$20.4 million) with fees.

The present lot was painted between 1906 and 1907, when Munch was commissioned by Max Reinhardt, a world-famous film theatre director, to design the sets for his newly-purchased theatre in Berlin. In creating his avant-garde theatre in the round, Reinhardt also asked Munch to create a frieze to be placed in a hall on the upper level.

The installation art, consisting of twelve canvases with the four-metre-long Dance on the Beach as the centerpiece, is known as The Reinhardt Frieze. In 1912, when the theatre was refurbished, the frieze was split up and this work was acquired by leading art historian and curator Professor Curt Galser, who at the time was a central figure in Berlin's art scene, holding a position as the director of the Berlin State of Art Library. 

Dance on the Beach had been hung in the First Class lounge of the MS Black Watch

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Glaser, persecuted for his Jewish background, sold his art collection and fled to Switzerland, eventually making his way to America, where he passed away in 1943. And it was how Dance on the Beach found its second owner – Thomas Olsen, a shipowner and patron of Munch’s, who acquired the work at an auction house in Oslo in 1934. 

The painting then found its way to the First Class lounge of the MS Black Watch, the shipping magnate's passenger liner which travelled between Oslo and Newcastle. As Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, he removed the artwork and brought all his Munch paintings to a remote barn in a Norwegian forest. These hidden artworks include one of four versions of The Scream, which the Olsen family sold at Sotheby's for a then record US$119.9 million in 2012. 

Since Dance on the Beach was sold by Glaser under duress, it has been agreed by the Olsens and the Glasers that the sale proceeds will be divided by the two families. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 121 | Robert Delaunay | Rythme circulaire, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in Paris in 1937
254 x 301 cm

  • Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1937)
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (acquired as a gift from the above in 1937)
  • Galerie István Schlégl, Zurich (acquired from the above in 1986)
  • Acquired from the above in 1987 by the present owner

Estimate: £7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: £6,000,000
Sold: £7,173,800

Lot 118 | Andy Warhol | Debbie Harry, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas (Sold to an Asian collector)
Executed in 1980
106.7 x 106.7 cm

  • Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
  • Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
  • Cingillioglu Collection, Monaco 
  • Sotheby’s London, 29 June 2011, lot 42 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: £4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: £5,500,000
Sold: £6,599,300

Lot 101 | Barbara Kruger | Untitled (Out of your mind) and Untitled (In your face), two works, Gelatin silver print (Sold to an Asian collector)
Executed in 1989
127 x 222.5 cm

  • Galerie Philomene Magers, Munich
  • Private Collection, Belgium
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: ££500,000 - 700,000
Hammer Price: £700,000
Sold: £889,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 1 March 2023
Number of Lots: 36
Sold: 30
Unsold: 6
Sale Rate: 83.3%
Sale Total: £160,943,900 (US$194,162,721)