Art Market

The 5 Star Lots from the Upcoming London Auctions

Nate Freeman
Feb 25, 2019 6:13PM

The two weeks of evening sales in London that begin this week mark the start of the auction calendar year. They will also serve as the first indicators of the health—or the malaise—of the market. Here are five standout lots that will define the upcoming auctions, with one significant lot plucked from each of the five major evening sales.

Claude Monet, Le Palais Decal (1908), at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Auction on February 26th

Claude Monet, Le Palais Ducal, 1908. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

The year begins with many market professionals and prognosticators hinting that 2019 will be a down year. The usually peppy Tad Smith, CEO of Sotheby’s, predicted in his quarterly earnings call in November that due to political noise in the U.S. and abroad, as well as rising interest rates and slowing global growth, auction sales will be “a bit more subdued” than in recent years. That certainly seems to be the case when assessing the pre-sale estimates for the Impressionist and modern sales at the auction house Smith runs. Total Imp/mod sales are expected to bring in just £86 million ($112.3 million), just over half of the £155.5 million ($215.6 million) achieved at equivalent sales a year ago.

Looking at the catalogue, it does lack a certain depth of sourcing that we’ve seen at the Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesroom in recent years. The shortage of major consignments could be due to a hesitancy on the part of sellers, who may feel the market’s climate could prevent them from getting the best possible return. The only eight-figure lot of the night is Claude Monet’s Le Palais Decal (1908), a marvelous rendering of the Doge’s Palace in Venice as seen from across the canal—as lovely as the Queen of the Adriatic gets, really. It’s estimated to sell for £20 million to £30 million ($26.1 million to $39.1 million), making it a significant part of the house’s total sales. Sotheby’s is banking that the Monet’s “fresh-to-auction” quality—it’s never been on the block, and has been in the same family since the mid-1920s—will help secure a buyer even in uncertain times.

René Magritte, Le lieu commun (1964), at “The Art of the Surreal,” a selection of lots to be sold immediately after Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on February 27th

René Magritte, Le Lieu commun, 1964. Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2019.


The Imp/mod portion of the two-week auction sales slate in London may be a bright spot for Christie’s: The pre-sale estimate is between £206 million and £272 million ($269 million and $355 million), which would make it the most money grossed in a week of sales in one category outside of New York, for any single house. Much of that hoped-for total has to do with a single U.S. collector who consigned 23 works valued at a total of £100 million to Christie’s, having been drawn to the house by the way it handled the pre-war masterpieces in the Rockefeller estate during a series of sales in May 2018—a collection that grossed a record-breaking $835.1 million, a large chunk of Christie’s total haul of $7 billion globally for 2018.

Highlights from the anonymous collector’s trove include Paul Cézanne’s Nature morte de pêches et poires (1885–87), estimated to sell for £20 million ($26.1 million), and a Monet water lilies painting, Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas (1916–19), estimated to sell for £40 million ($52.2 million). As for how an American collector decided to sell the works in the U.K., Christie’s Keith Gill told The Telegraph: “Such a collection will be more of an event in London than in New York, where sales of big impressionist collections are not uncommon.”

But the most intriguing lot set to be sold at Christie’s on February 27th might be a René Magritte, Le lieu commun (1964), which is being offered in a 34-lot suite of paintings called “The Art of the Surreal” that will be sold at the King Street salesroom right after the Imp/mod sale. Monet and Cézanne have been market stalwarts for decades, but the Belgian Surrealist fond of painting men in bowler hats is having a bit of a moment. Magritte’s Le Principe du Plaisir (1937) broke an artist’s record when it sold for $26.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2018, and now Le lieu commun is within striking distance of a new high mark just months later. The work—which has been in Asian private collections for decades—is estimated to sell for a figure between £15 million and £25 million ($19.6 million and $32.6 million).

Jenny Saville, Juncture (1994), at Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale on March 5th

Jenny Saville, Juncture, 1994. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jenny Saville became the world’s most expensive living woman artist when Propped (1992) sold at Sotheby’s in London for £9.5 million ($12.4 million) during its Frieze Week evening sale in October 2018. That milestone was immediately overshadowed by Banksy partially shredding one of his works after it was sold—but look who has the last laugh now! The March evening sale a few months later will feature both a painting and a drawing by Saville, and no works by the anonymous street art prankster who punked Sotheby’s. (There is a single Banksy work among the hundreds of works in the day sale on March 6th, and it features the head of the late punk icon Sid Vicious spray painted over pink nine times. It’s estimated to sell for between £200,000 and £300,000.)

Saville’s painting, Juncture (1994), is estimated to sell for a figure between £5 million and £7 million ($6.5 million and $9.1 million), and it’s guaranteed, showing the faith that the market has in her work at the moment. And while that may not be enough to break her record, it will certainly give the consignor a big return: The anonymous seller bought the work at Christie’s in 2009 for £457,250, so the return will be more than 1,000 percent.

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1968–69), at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Art Auction on March 6th

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott , 1968–69. Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2019.

In a canny move, Christie’s held back one of the David Hockney double portraits from Barney Ebsworth’s collection, betting that a big price for the more iconic of the duo, Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972), would create the buzz needed for another big sale a few months later across the pond. Indeed, the gigantic poolside image went for $90.3 million—making Hockney the most expensive living artist—and now those who didn’t have the scratch the first time around can bid for Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1968–69), estimated to sell for £30 million ($39.1 million) at the post-war and contemporary evening sale on March 6th.

While that price is less than half of what the other double portrait made, it’s likely to be the biggest contemporary lot of the week, which is to be expected. While the London sales see fireworks for high-quality pictures on the Imp/mod side—witness the fact that last year at these sales, the adviser Harry Smith bought 13 Picassos on behalf of one client for a total of more than £110 million—the contemporary side is where consignors tend to unload solid works by dependable, mid-market artists, typically topping out in the mid–£20 million range.

And yet, The Telegraph reports that after the three evening sales grossed £344.6 million in March 2018 for a 50-percent spike year-to-year, sales will likely be back down to around the 2017 total of £229 million this year, with the estimate ranging from £208 million to £305 million. Best case scenario: The three houses successfully sell their top items for a small drop from last year, and the market is described as “stable.” Worst case scenario: The top lots fail to find buyers, and the auctions do about half the amount of business as the year before.

Gerhard Richter, Düsenjäger (1963), at Phillips’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on March 7th

Gerhard Richter, Düsenjäger, 1963. Courtesy of Phillips.

The journey of Dϋsenjäger (1963) has been a twisting, turbulent flight, but it can make a successful landing on March 7th if Gerhard Richter’s photorealistic painting of a jet plane finally finds a willing buyer. It was consigned to Phillips in the fall of 2016, reportedly by Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, who is said to be the buyer who purchased it from Christie’s in 2007 for $11.2 million. Allen more than doubled his investment when an irrevocable bid was placed by young Beijing businessman and art collector Zhang Chang. The jet painting was slotted as the star lot of the Phillips evening sale in New York in 2016, with a deal in place so that Zhang would get 50 percent of the buyer’s premium owed on a hammer price at or above $24 million, and 30 percent of any difference between the winning bid and the Richter’s guarantee. But disaster struck: No one bid on the work, Zhang ended up as the buyer, and Phillips paid Allen the $24 million.

How do we have such intimate knowledge of a complicated, hush-hush deal among billionaires? Because Zhang never paid for the Richter, and Phillips sued him, resulting in all the nitty-gritty details getting exposed to the world in court documents. The suit ended up roping in Christie’s and Gagosian through a separate deal, and was finally settled in February 2018. And so Phillips was left holding the bag: It still had a Richter jet plane painting to sell. Not taking any chances this time, the house has cut the estimate to £10 million to £15 million, or a top limit of $19.6 million, significantly less than what it had to fork over to Allen. And while it’s a high number, it’s nowhere near the top lot at the equivalent sale a year ago: Picasso’s La Dormeuse (1932), which sold for £41.9 million ($57.8 million). That contributed to the highest-grossing Phillips sale in history, and kicked off what became the house’s best year ever. Even if the March 7th sale can’t hit those heights, perhaps collectors will realize this a hell of a deal on an big early Richter masterpiece, and show up to raise their paddles.

Nate Freeman

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that René Magritte's Le lieu commun (1964) was guaranteed by a third party. It is not guaranteed.