Art Market

Banksy Sets Second-Highest Auction Mark at the Last Major Sotheby’s Sale of the Summer

Benjamin Sutton
Jul 29, 2020 12:58AM

Banksy, detail of Mediterranean sea view 2017, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

On Tuesday, Sotheby’s conducted the last major virtual evening auction of the summer from its London headquarters. The eclectic cross-category sale, dubbed “Rembrandt to Richter,” included works by the titular artists, as well as Pieter Bruegel the Younger, Barbara Hepworth, Blinky Palermo, Louise Bourgeois, Banksy, Amoako Boafo, and many more. The mixing of categories often resulted in surprising juxtapositions—like a 2013 Kehinde Wiley portrait of a female sitter executed in his characteristically regal style, followed immediately by a Peter Paul Rubens portrait of a “well-to-do lady,” per the catalog essay.

But the formula saw mixed results, with several significant lots—including a large Francis Bacon painting that had the night’s second-highest estimate—being withdrawn and sluggish bidding on other star works. But there was also a good deal of cross-category bidding, with specialists from the Impressionist and modern and post-war and contemporary departments repeatedly placing bids on Old Masters on behalf of their clients, a testament to the historical category’s widening appeal.

“This sale broke down every barrier you can imagine,” Andrew Fletcher, the head of Old Master and British paintings at Sotheby’s, said after the sale.

All told, the 71-lot sale had six pieces withdrawn and three that failed to sell, for a sell-through rate of 95 percent by lot. Three lots were by artists of color and seven were by female artists. The sale’s hammer prices totaled £128.1 million ($164.7 million), squarely within the presale estimate of £108.2 million to £155.5 million ($139.1 million–$199.9 million), which does not take auction house fees into account. With fees, the auction’s total take was £149.7 million ($192.4 million).

Top lots

Joan Miró, Peinture (Femme au chapeau rouge), 1927. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat, 1632. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Joan Miró’s Femme au chapeau rouge (1947)—a glowing blue composition that once belonged to Alexander Calder and hung in his bedroom—had the night’s highest estimate, at £20 million to £30 million ($25.7 million–$38.5 million). It crept past its low estimate over the course of an 11-minute intercontinental bidding war between clients on the phone with Helena Newman, co-head of Impressionist and modern art worldwide at Sotheby’s, and Julian Dawes, the firm’s co-deputy head of Impressionist and modern art in New York. In the end, the client on the line with Dawes prevailed with a winning bid of £20.6 million ($26.4 million), which came out to £22.3 million ($28.6 million) with fees. According to Sotheby’s, that made it the highest price achieved by a work of art sold at auction in Europe this season.
  • The same buyer, this time bidding with Newman, also took home the sale’s seventh-biggest lot: Henri Matisse’s Danseuse dans un intérieur, carrelage vert et noir (1942), winning it with a single bid of £5.5 million ($7 million), well below the work’s low estimate of £8 million ($10.2 million). With fees, the price of the Matisse came to £6.4 million ($8.3 million).

Henri Matisse, Danseuse assise dans un fauteuil, 1942. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Rembrandt’s Self-portrait of the artist, half-length, wearing a ruff and a black hat (1632), one of the artist’s only painted self-portraits not yet in a museum collection, set off a short bidding contest that pushed its price just over the low estimate of £12 million ($15.4 million). It sold for a hammer price of £12.6 million ($16.1 million) to a bidder on the line with Christopher Apostle, the senior vice president and head of the Old Masters department. With fees, the price came to £14.5 million ($18.7 million), more than double the previous auction record for a Rembrandt self-portrait, £6.9 million ($11.3 million), set by Sotheby’s back in 2003.
  • Fernand Léger’s Nature morte (1914), a prismatic still life in the artist’s distinctive style of Cubist deconstruction, was the object of a protracted bidding war between clients on the phone with Newman and Samuel Valette, the senior director of private sales for Sotheby’s in London. That contest pushed it well past its low estimate of £8 million ($10.2 million), and the client bidding through Valette eventually won with a bid of £10.5 million ($13.4 million), or £12.1 million ($15.6 million) with fees. The same bidder took home the night’s sixth-biggest lot, Pablo Picasso’s charcoal portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter Femme endormie (1931), for a hammer price of £6.2 million ($8 million), or £7.3 million ($9.4 million) with fees.

Paolo Uccello, Battle on the banks of a River, probably the battle of the Metaurus, 207 BCE. Courtesy of Sotheby

Sotheby’s also notched the second-highest auction result for a work by Banksy with the triptych Mediterranean sea view 2017 (2017), the elusive artist’s riff on an Old Master seascape painting and commentary on the European migrant crisis. Bidding quickly moved past its high estimate of £1.2 million ($1.5 million), and the work finally sold for a hammer price of £1.8 million ($2.3 million), or £2.2 million ($2.8 million) with fees—still a far cry from Banksy’s auction record of £9.8 million ($12.1 million), set by Sotheby’s last fall. The artist is donating the proceeds from the work’s sale to a hospital in Bethlehem.

Additionally, three artists’ auction records were smashed over the course of the sale. A painted stone bas relief by Henri Laurens, a lesser-known Cubist, elicited strong offers from phone bidders and one collector bidding online, pushing it way past its high estimate of £350,000 ($450,000). It ultimately sold for a hammer price of £1.7 million ($2.1 million), or £2 million ($2.6 million) with fees. Cabbages (1953), a dazzling still life by Cedric Morris, was pursued by several bidders and ultimately sold for a hammer price of £280,000 ($360,000), or £350,000 ($450,000) with fees, more than double its high estimate of £150,000 ($193,000).

The third auction record for an artist came via one of the night’s most surprising bidding wars. The fervor broke out over Battle on the banks of a river, probably the Battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE) (ca. 1468), a cinematic composition by the 15th-century Florentine painter Paolo Uccello. The work, which is still the subject of litigation related to a Nazi loot restitution claim, was being sold subject to that dispute’s resolution. It inspired a prolonged contest between bidders (“a battle in the painting and a battle in the bidding,” as auctioneer Oliver Barker put it) and eventually sold for a hammer price of £2 million ($2.5 million), or £2.4 million ($3.1 million) with fees. That result was three times the work’s high estimate of £800,000 ($1 million) and nearly 10 times Uccello’s previous auction record, £157,250 (about $253,000), set by Sotheby’s in 2008.

Sir Cedric Morris, Cabbages, 1953. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The night’s penultimate offering, a 2017 self-portrait by the star painter Amoako Boafo, set off a breakneck bidding contest that quickly pushed it well past its high estimate of £120,000 ($154,000). It ultimately sold for a hammer price of £190,000 ($244,000), or £237,500 ($305,000) with fees. That result, though impressive, was not as extreme as other auction sales of Boafo’s work: In a virtual evening sale at Phillips at the beginning of the month, one of his paintings sold for $668,000, or nearly 10 times its high estimate.

Perhaps the most dramatic contest of the night was for Alberto Giacometti’s Femme debout (conceived 1956–57, cast 1958), one of the artist’s iconic, skeletal bronze figures. Over the course of seven minutes—including a surprise £9 million bid ($11.5 million) from an online bidder just as things seemed to be slowing down—it soared past its high estimate of £6 million ($7.7 million) to sell for a hammer price of £9.2 million ($11.8 million), or £10.6 million ($13.7 million) with fees. It was one of five works in the sale to fetch prices of more than £10 million ($12.8 million) with fees. The fifth was Gerhard Richter’s large cloud painting Wolken (Fenster) (1970), which elicited a single bid equal to its low estimate of £9 million ($11.5 million). With fees the price came to £10.4 million ($13.4 million).


Gerhard Richter, Wolken (fenster), 1970. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“Though it is now late in the typical calendar of sales, it is clear that the market has not gone on vacation,” Barker said after the sale, adding that the result “represented a resounding vote of confidence” in the art market. And certainly the sale performed admirably, with nearly two-thirds (42) of the 65 lots on offer selling for hammer prices above their low estimates.

However, internal and external signals suggest that confidence in the art market has its limits. The withdrawal of the night’s second-biggest lot—the Bacon painting that was expected to bring as much as £18 million ($23.1 million)—may only attest to one consignor’s apprehensions. But it may also reflect broader concerns about the resilience of the art market as COVID-19 continues to batter economies.

One recent report found the total take of auctions at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s through July 10th this year represented a 49 percent drop from the equivalent period last year. All three auction houses have now conducted relatively successful high-value virtual sales, but the prices achieved and volume of works being sold still represent a major dip from business as usual (although, notably, all three have seen exceptionally strong results from their Hong Kong sales). All three houses also relied on guarantees and irrevocable bids to help ensure the success of their marquee virtual sales; nine of the lots in the “Rembrandt to Richter” sale had been guaranteed to achieve a minimum price, including the leading Miró and Rembrandt works.

As the art market heads into a summer vacation season like no other, auction house staff will likely be working hard as ever, lining up major consignments for the fall, fine tuning their online platforms, and hoping their client base stays interested in buying and selling art as COVID-19 cases continue to surge and businesses shutter en masse around the world.

Benjamin Sutton