What We Learned From London's Summer Cycle of Auctions

What We Learned From London's Summer Cycle of Auctions
Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne" (1966) sold for over $17million at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction.
(Photo: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)

After the record-shattering $1 billion spring season in New York, contemporary art sale volume took a bit of a breather — and a backseat to classic Impressionist and Modern — at the recent round of summer auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London. What did we learn about the state of the art market from last week's action?

A Downdraft in the Market?


The two houses together realized £184 million ($285 million) for postwar and contemporary art evening and day sales, down 22 percent from last year’s £236 million ($368 million) contemporary tally. Meanwhile the Impressionist and modern totals ticked upwards, to £212.5 million ($329 million), from £204 million ($318 million) a year ago. Smaller auction house Phillips realized £12.3 million ($19 million) at its contemporary sale on June 27, though this was roughly half of the £23.3 million ($36.3 million) result achieved last June. Which is not to say that the sales didn’t produce their fair share of individual fireworks across all categories.

Quality Is King, and Bacon Is Hot

At Sotheby’s, where contemporary sale volume actually increased — to £95.5 million ($148 million) from £83.1 million (130 million) — the house proved that demand for Francis Bacon is stronger than ever after a pause following the 2008 art market downturn. The artist’s triptych, “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne” (1966), depicting his friend and muse, sold for £11.3 million ($17.4 million). Following close behind price-wise was his haunting 1949 oil, “Head III” which turned an above-estimate price of £10.4 million ($16 million).

“Tonight’s sale was all about the quest for quality — quality across categories — from the modern masters to the new generation of artists,” said Alex Branczik, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department in London after the auction.

At Christie’s, Peter Doig’s “Jetty,” buoyed the contemporary sale with a record price of £7.4 million ($11.3 million), exceeding its high £6 million ($9 million) estimate.

Indeed, there appears to be no shortage of international buying power where top-flight works are concerned; instead houses are faced with the challenge of procuring great works for sale each season. Buyers welcomed fresh-to-the-market works from private collections, such as a group of seven Picasso paintings from the collection of the late Stanley Seeger — six nearly doubled the combined low presale estimate of £3.2 million ($5.3 million) when they sold for £6.3 million ($9.8 million).

The Nahmads Play Both Sides, and Win

Elsewhere, this season some of the priciest lots came from the trade as opposed to private collections. The Nahmad family of art dealers who maintain a vast trove of Impressionist works, consigned star lots to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s Impressionist sales — both secured with guarantees. Notwithstanding the many observer eyebrows raised over this double consignment coup — the dealers found success all around.

At Sotheby’s, the Nahmads scored with Claude Monet’s dreamy Venetian view, “Le Palais Contarini” (1908), for which the Nahmads shelled out $4.2 million back in 1996. This time around, it sailed to £19.6 million ($31 million) just under the high £20 million ($31 million) estimate. At Christie’s, their coup was Wassily Kandinsky’s vibrant “Studie zu Improvisation 3,” 1909, which galloped to £13.5 million ($21.1 million).

The week was not without its sour notes, though. Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-516">Joan Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro’s rather unusual looking “La tige de la fleur rouge pousse vers la lune” (The Stem of the Red Flower Grows Toward the Moon), another Nahmad consignment, failed to sell on a low estimate of £5 million ($7.8 million). However, even here, the Nahmads came out on top: Having extended a guarantee to the consigners, Christie’s now owns the painting.

Sotheby's Edges Christie's

Did anyone come out on top overall? Sotheby’s took the lead overall after the two-week auction run, realizing a total of £223 million ($346million), an increase from the £172 million ($268 million) taken in last summer. Meanwhile, Christie’s £173 million ($268 million) total marked a drop from £263 million ($410 million) last year.