Art Market
£57 Million Sotheby’s Sale Led by Twombly and Hockney
Oliver Barker fields bids at Sotheby's Contemporary & Italian Art evening sales. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Oliver Barker fields bids at Sotheby's Contemporary & Italian Art evening sales. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s opened London’s annual Frieze Week evening auctions on Thursday with a lackluster double-barreled sale of Italian and contemporary art that brought in a combined £57 million, or £68.7 million (just under $91 million) including fees, in a night that saw several big hits and many more misses.

The contemporary sale’s total of £50.3 million, including buyer’s premium, was the highest-ever total for a Sotheby’s auction during Frieze Week. Two lots were withdrawn, but over 88% of the remaining lots sold, a sharp contrast to the “In Context” sale of Italian post-war artists that preceded it and which saw nearly a third of its lots go unsold.

Claudia Dwek, chair of Sotheby’s Italy, said the Italian sale had suffered a few “casualties,” and noted the market had clearly become more “selective.” She cited the growing presence of Italian art in the market, especially around London, which created more competition for prize lots. The recent relaxation of Italy’s export laws also may have brought in an abundance of new material.  

The results were a steep drop from Sotheby’s London’s spring sale, which brought in £117.4 million including fees charged to the buyer, on 56 lots sold; that result, a 70% rise over the same sale one year before, was heralded at the time as a sign of the London market’s resilience. Thursday night’s auction featured 43 lots, of which 38 sold. None were estimated at nor reached eight figures, and several held estimates in the low five figures. But Sotheby’s sales across locations and categories are up 30% from the same period a year ago, the company said after the auction.

The night had several pleasant surprises, including a record for Josef Albers at auction and a near-record for British artist David Hockney. Two artists, Thierry De Cordier and Alex Da Corte, made their evening sales debuts, and each notched an above estimate result.

Albers’s Homage to the Square: Temperate (1957) broke the artist’s previous record by nearly £1 million, with eight bidders pushing up the gorgeous blue, purple, and pink painting to £1.89 million, or £2.2 million with fees. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for £445,600 and on Thursday had been estimated at between £700,000 and £1 million. On Friday, Sotheby’s will hold a sale of Bauhaus artists.

Hockney’s fresh-to-market painting of the Grand Canyon, 15 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998), sold for just above its high estimate of £5 million, hammering at £5.2 million (£6 million including the buyer’s fees). The 15-part work, which had been shown as part of his much-lauded recent retrospective at the Tate Britain, features rich reds and oranges, capped by a thin blue horizon line.

Several other works came in at well above estimates: The second lot in the contemporary sale, Wolfgang Tillmans’s Greifbar 26 (2014), sold for £450,000, or £548,750 with fees, tripling its low estimate of £150,000. The artist has been in high demand following his exhibitions at Tate Modern and the Fondation Beyeler. The following lot, Howard Hodgkin’s House (2005–07) came down at £580,000, or £704,750 after fees, handily beating its estimate of £350,000 to £450,000, with one online bidder hanging in to nearly the end. Auctioneer and chair of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker, used to goading bidders in the room, gamely cajoled the anonymous online bidder by addressing the screen in front of him (“I don’t know where you are,” he said at one point to the screen, looking for a bid above £520,000).

The sale’s cover lot, an untitled 1962 Cy Twombly painting estimated at £5.5 million to £7.5 million, barely made its low estimate, hammering at £5.55 million, or £6.4 million with buyer’s fees. Over four feet by nearly five feet, it comes from the “most significant and consequential phase” of the artist’s career, when he was painting in Rome, according to the auction catalogue, and was purchased by the present owner in the 1970s. The bidding proceeded slowly, crawling, by the end, in £50,000 increments towards its final hammer price.

Two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose 1982 untitled painting went for a record-setting $110.4 million in New York this spring, were on offer. Their estimates were a fraction of that recent blockbuster lot, which started bidding at $57 million. The higher-priced of the two paintings, Bronze (1982), was estimated to sell for between £5 million and £7 million. But despite the record, and perhaps because of the many Basquiats that have popped up at recent fairs, including Frieze, Bronze found no takers. The lower-priced of the two works, Remote Commander (1984), which last sold at Sotheby’s in 1990 for $203,500 with fees, hammered in at £2.5 million before fees, just below its £2.6 million low estimate, bringing Sotheby’s a mid-estimate  £2.9 million with the addition of the buyer’s premium.

The auction featured just one work by Andy Warhol, who was unseated in May by the 1982 Basquiat as the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction. His 5 Deaths (1963) went for £800,000, or £968,750 with fees, a fraction of its estimate of £2.2 million to £3.2 million.

A delightful mobile by Alexander Calder, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and one of the evening’s higher-priced lots at an estimated  £1.8 million to £2.5 million, sold for £2.4 million, or £2.8 million with fees. The work came from a descendant of the sculptor Costantino Nivola, who received it from Calder as a gift (an incision on one of the mobile’s wings reads, “per Tino,” Constantino’s nickname).

Sotheby’s sold Francis Bacon’s Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1983), a portrait of the artist’s dearest female friend who was also a lover of Alberto Giacometti, for £1.65 million or £1.9 million with fees, against an estimate of £1.8 million to £2.5 million. The result marked a muted prelude to the week’s bigger Bacon: a double portrait of the Pope and Bacon’s lover George Dyer, which will be offered at Christie’s on Friday night for at least $80 million, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Philip Guston has seen an uptick in market attention following his retrospective at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, and his 1970 painting Scared Stiff sold for around $15 million at Art Basel in Basel in June. On Thursday night, Odessa (1977) sold for £3.2 million, or £3.7 million with fees, coming in at the higher end of its pre-sale estimate of between £2.5 million and £3.5 million.

Jean Dubuffet’s Cortège (1961), brought £2.7 million, or £3.2 million with fees, against an estimate of £2.7 million to £3.5 million. It had last sold at Sotheby’s 16 years ago for $423,750, including buyer’s premium.

The evening began with a sale of modern Italian art that netted £15.2 million (£18.4 million including fees), against an estimated £19.5 million to £27.2 million. In addition to the Italian artists, Sotheby’s added works by their famous contemporaries, highlighting the dialogue between Italian luminaries such as Lucio Fontana and Fausto Melotti, and peers such as Josef Albers, Alexander Calder, and Yves Klein.

Like the contemporary art sale, many items in the Italian sale were modestly priced for an evening auction, with several carrying low estimates in the five figures. Among them, Yayoi Kusama’s Golden Shoe (1959–66) sold for a mere £16,000 before buyer’s premium, below its estimate of £20,000 to £30,000. The sale was also heavy on Lucio Fontana, with eight works by him alone.

Some of the higher-priced Fontana lots, including two of his slashed canvases, or tagli, were met with surprisingly weak demand. One, a bright red monochrome with three slits, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1968) sold for £1.3 million to Amy Cappellazzo, chair of the Fine Art division at Sotheby’s, who was bidding on behalf of a client. That price didn’t even touch the low estimate of £1.5 million, and Cappellazzo was the only bidder. A second Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1962), with nine slits across an olive green canvas, was estimated at £1.2 to £1.8 million, and failed to find a bidder.

As with Basquiat, Fontana had no shortage of works on offer this week, with at least half a dozen Fontanas available at Frieze Masters. Tornabuoni Fine Art’s booth featured three, with prices from €1.15 million to €3.5 million. This reflects plentiful supply of his works at auction and at fairs since the Italian market heated up and reached what it retrospect was perhaps a peak in November 2015, when Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964) sold for $29.2 million.

Alighiero Boetti’s Addizione (1982) fetched £2 million, or £2.2 million with fees, a record for one of his tapestry works but one which landed squarely within the estimate of  £1.7 million to £2.5 million. One of Boetti’s maps, Mappa (1983), sold for just £700,000, barely above its starting bid, and below its estimate of £800,000 to £1.2 million.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Motociclisti (1967), an early example of his “mirror paintings” done on stainless steel, came in at the low end of its estimate of £1.2 million to £1.6 million, notching £1.25 million, or £1.5 million with fees.

Thursday night’s sale took place against a backdrop of ongoing Brexit uncertainty and featured few of the big-ticket, trophy works that a more selective market is hungry for. It also didn’t benefit from the same influx of bidding from overseas buyers seen last year following the pound’s steep post-Brexit decline; the so-called “Brexit discount” made some works 25% cheaper than they had been six months before. Sterling has risen steadily against the dollar since last year, from a low of $1.20 to around $1.32 this week, although it has also fallen against the euro.

The evening auctions continue with Christie’s and Phillips holding post-war and contemporary sales on Friday. Christie’s will also hold an Italian sale on Friday.


Anna Louie Sussman is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.