Art Market

$29.8-Million Hockney Can’t Escape Brexit’s Shadow at Sotheby’s in London

Christy Kuesel
Feb 12, 2020 12:59AM

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The first round of post-Brexit contemporary art auctions in London kicked off at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, where generally cautious bidding may have been indicative of the art market’s concern over Britain departing the European Union. The auction’s star lot, David Hockney’s The Splash (1966), went for a hammer price of £21 million ($27.1 million), putting it on the lower side of its pre-sale estimate of £20 million to £30 million ($25.8 million–$38.7 million). With fees, the price came to £23.1 million ($29.8 million), enough to make it the beloved artist’s third-highest auction result ever.

The sale brought in a total of £92.4 million ($119.4 million), falling squarely within the evening’s pre-sale estimate. Three of the auction’s 47 lots failed to find buyers, and one was withdrawn, making for a sell-through rate of 93.5 percent.

Top lots

David Hockney, The Splash, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rubber, 1985. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Hockney’s The Splash (1966), depicting the splash left by a diver who has just disappeared underwater, sold for £23.1 million. The work is the second of three paintings in Hockney’s series of “splash” works, and sold for over eight times what it brought in at a Sotheby’s auction in 2006, when it sold for £2.9 million ($5.4 million)—setting a new auction record for Hockney at the time. Though Tuesday night’s sale of The Splash is Hockney’s third-highest auction sale ever, it’s a far cry from his $90.3 million highwater mark, which briefly made him the world’s most expensive living artist.
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rubber (1985) sold for a hammer price of £6.4 million ($8.2 million), narrowly surpassing its low estimate of £6 million ($7.7 million). The work, which features a vibrant mix of flames and a skeletal human head, brought in £7.4 million ($9.5 million) including fees. The equivalent sale at Sotheby’s in London last year was led by a similarly priced Basquiat, which brought in £8.2 million ($10.8 million). (The bidder who won Rubber also snapped up Adrian Ghenie’s moody 2014 painting The Arrival for £4.1 million, or $5.2 million, three lots earlier.)
  • Francis Bacon’s Turning Figure (1963), which had the same £6 million to £8 million ($7.7 million–$10.3 million) estimate as the Basquiat, hammered down at its low estimate, a price that came to £7 million ($9 million) after fees. The piece was being offered at auction for the first time ever after being in the same private collection for over 30 years.

Julie Curtiss, Witch, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A.R. Penck, Welt des adlers I (World of the Eagle I), 1981. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Tuesday’s sale at Sotheby’s was short on record-breaking action, but A.R. Penck’s Welt des Adlers I (World of the Eagle I) (1981) sold for a hammer price of £430,000 ($555,000), or £531,000 ($685,000) with fees, setting a new record for the German Neo-Expressionist.

The most protracted bidding wars in the swift sale were for works by younger living artists. The opening lot, Julie Curtiss’s Witch (2017), drew interest from eight bidders, with the painting eventually selling for a hammer price of £130,000 ($167,000), or £162,500 ($209,000) with fees. Curtiss’s work first appeared at auction in May of last year, and her current auction record of $423,000 was set at Christie’s last November; Curtiss just joined the roster of mega-gallery White Cube. The sale’s third-to-last lot, Eddie Martinez’s Empirical Mind State (2009), soared past its £150,000 ($193,000) high estimate to sell for a hammer price of £500,000 ($645,000) to a phone bidder on the line with Yuki Terase, the auction house’s head of contemporary art, Asia. With fees, the price came to £615,000 ($793,000).

The saga of Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped banana at Art Basel in Miami Beach last December seemed to have whet collectors’ appetites for his work in the Sotheby’s sale: an untitled, hyperrealist sculpture of a seemingly crucified figure from 2007 with a high estimate of £800,000 ($1 million). His December stunt proved fruitful: The work at Sotheby’s set off a long bidding war between two phone bidders on the line with Terase and Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, with the work eventually hammering down at £1.2 million ($1.5 million). After fees, the price came to £1.5 million ($1.9 million).


Eddie Martinez, Empirical Mind State, 2009. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Brexit hung over the Sotheby’s sale both figuratively and literally: Banksy’s Vote to Love (2018), a work painted on a “Vote to Leave” pro-Brexit placard, was the night’s third lot and sold for over twice its low estimate, fetching a hammer price of £950,000 ($1.2 million), or £1.15 million ($1.4 million) with fees. But Britain’s final departure from the European Union on January 31st may have tempered bidding on the sale’s higher-priced works and impacted its bottom line. The lots with the evening’s nine highest hammer prices all sold within or below their pre-sale estimates, excluding additional fees. The splashy Hockney failed to ignite a bidding war. And the only lot withdrawn was projected to be one of the sale’s biggest: a Gerhard Richter squeegee painting with a pre-sale estimate of £6 million to £8 million ($7.7 million–$10.3 million).

Though the sale was short on surprises, its overall result was on par with previous years: With a total value of £92.4 million ($119 million), it came in just under last year’s equivalent sale in London, which brought in £93.2 million ($122.8 million); its total was significantly lower than 2018’s equivalent sale, which brought in £109.2 million ($151 million).

London’s auctions continue Wednesday with Sotheby’s day sale of contemporary art, followed by Christie’s sale of post-war and contemporary art in the evening.

Christy Kuesel