Art Market

$84.5-Million Francis Bacon Triptych Leads Sotheby’s Marathon Virtual Auction

Benjamin Sutton
Jun 30, 2020 5:15AM

Francis Bacon, installation view of Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The first major test of the upper echelons of the secondary market since COVID-19 shut down most of the world’s auction house salesrooms was, by most measures, a success. It was also a testament to the endurance of Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker, who conducted Monday night’s sale from a rostrum surrounded by video screens at Sotheby’s London headquarters—where, by the time the nearly five-hour-long session concluded, it was well past 4 a.m.—fielding bids from his British colleagues as well as those in New York and Hong Kong. Though there were minor mix-ups along the way and specialists seemed to lose steam in the late going, the affair saw plenty of competition between phone and online bidders and a smattering of smashed auction records, especially for women artists.

The marathon session spanned three auctions: works that belonged to the late influential collector Ginny Williams; the evening sale of contemporary art; and the evening sale of Impressionist and modern art. Over the course of nearly 80 lots, the sales brought in a total of $363.2 million, near the high end of Sotheby’s presale estimate of $262.1 million to $368.4 million, with a 93.2 percent sell-through rate by lot. The Ginny Williams collection outpaced expectations, bringing in a total of $65.5 million (ahead of a presale estimate of $35.9 million to $51.7 million), with all 18 lots finding buyers—a so-called white glove sale. The 30-lot contemporary art sale achieved a sell-through rate of 96.7 percent and landed near its high estimate of $239.1 million, bringing in a total of $234.9 million. And the Impressionist and modern art sale brought in a total of $62.8 million—on the lower side of its presale estimate of $54.9 to $77.7 million—with a sell-through rate of 84.6 percent.

Top lots

Clyfford Still, PH-144 (1947-Y-No.1), 1947. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Roy Lichtenstein, White Brushstroke I, 1965. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981), the evening’s star lot with a presale estimate of $60 million to $80 million, looked as though it would stall at its low estimate until a bizarre bidding war between an online bidder going in $100,000 increments and a phone bidder on the line with Grégoire Billault, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the contemporary art department in New York, going in $400,000 and $900,000 increments pushed it much higher. Billaut’s bidder prevailed in the end, taking home the Bacon for a hammer price of $74 million, or $84.5 million with fees.
  • Clyfford Still’s PH-144 (1947-Y-No.1) (1947)—despite marking a rare auction appearance for the lauded Abstract Expressionist and coming to market for the first time since it was acquired by the late, beloved collectors Harry and Margaret “Moo” Anderson in 1972—elicited just one bid. A bidder on the phone with Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s chairman for the Americas, won it for a hammer price equal to the low estimate, $25 million, or $28.7 million with fees.
  • Roy Lichtenstein’s distinctive take on Abstract Expressionism, White Brushstroke I (1965), sold firmly within its presale estimate of $20 million to $30 million, for a hammer price of $23.5 million, or $25.4 million with fees.

Helen Frankenthaler, Royal Fireworks, 1975. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The night’s three top results were not exactly surprising—they were achieved by the lots with the highest estimates. There were, however, eight new auction records set over the course of the sales, most of them at slightly lower price points. The evening’s second lot, Helen Frankenthaler’s dazzling, cinematic composition Royal Fireworks (1975) from the Ginny Williams collection, more than doubled its high estimate of $3 million as well as the revered artist’s auction record, selling for a hammer price of $6.7 million, or $7.8 million with fees.

The first lot of the contemporary art portion of the evening, a meditative and surreal landscape by the late artist Matthew Wong, blew past his previous auction record ($62,500) and, following fevered phone bidding via specialists in Hong Kong and New York, sold for a hammer price of $1.5 million—more than 18 times its high estimate of $80,000. With fees, the price came to $1.8 million. A work that was recently featured in Vija Celmins’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Night Sky #7 (1995), didn’t quite reach its low estimate of $6 million, hammering down at $5.55 million, but that result was still well ahead of her previous auction record of $4.2 million. With fees, the result came out to $6.5 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Wifredo Lam, Omi Obini, 1943. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The evening saw sustained competition not only from phone bidders, but also from collectors bidding through Sotheby’s digital platform. During the contemporary portion, Sotheby’s notched its biggest online sale ever. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Head) (1982) surpassed its high estimate to sell to an online bidder for a hammer price of $13.1 million, or $15.1 million with fees. That result was also the fourth-highest price of the night and a record for a Basquiat work on paper.

The Impressionist and modern portion of the sale opened with a suite of works by female Surrealists and set new auction records for three of them. Leonor Fini’s Figures on a Terrace (Composition with Figures on a Terrace; La Terrasse) (1938) doubled its low estimate to sell for a hammer price of $800,000 ($980,000 with fees). Remedios Varo’s Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente) (1956) quickly surpassed its high estimate of $3 million—and her previous auction record of $4.3 million—to sell for a hammer price of $5.2 million, or $6.1 million with fees. And Alice Rahon’s Los Cuatro Hijos Del Arco Iris (1960) more than doubled its high estimate of $180,000 to sell for a hammer price of $410,000, or $512,000 with fees—a dramatic jump from the French-Mexican artist and poet’s previous auction record of $112,500.

The sale also marked a new auction record for Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam, whose Omi Obini (1943) sold near its low estimate, for a hammer price of $8.2 million, or $9.6 million with fees, nearly doubling his previous auction record of $5.2 million. It was the Impressionist and modern art sale’s second-highest result, after—what else—a Pablo Picasso portrait of one of his lovers (which sold for $11.1 million, with fees).


Remedios Varo, Armonía (Autorretrato sugerente), 1956. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Overall, there was plenty for Sotheby’s to be optimistic about in Monday night’s result. The evening’s biggest lots—several of which were consigned before COVID-19 became a global crisis—lived up to expectations despite the limitations of the virtual format and not all collectors being able to see the works in person before the sale. The auction house also benefited greatly from winning several major private collections, including those that belonged to Williams and the Andersons, as well as the trove of record-setting Surrealist paintings.

The sale also demonstrated that, given the right supply of knock-out paintings, serious collectors will turn up to a virtual auction. And though some had to get up very early (the sales started at 6:30 a.m. Hong Kong time) or eat dinner at their computers (the final gavel came down a little after 11 p.m. New York time), there were remarkably few technical glitches over the course of the evening. As Barker put it shortly after selling the final lot, speaking to an array of cameras and screens reminiscent of a retro-futurist science-fiction film: “It’s clear these innovations are here to stay.”

Sotheby’s will conduct its day sale of contemporary art in a similar format on Tuesday, June 30th. From there, the next auction house to test collectors’ willingness to embrace innovations will be Phillips, which is holding its evening sale of 20th-century and contemporary art on Thursday night. Finally, on July 10th, Christie’s will hold a cross-category sale spanning its Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York salesrooms.

Benjamin Sutton