Art Market

Tschabalala Self’s Auction Record Broken Amid Fevered Bidding at Christie’s

Nate Freeman
Jun 25, 2019 10:39PM

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015. Courtesy of Christie’s.

On Tuesday, Christie’s held its first summer post-war and contemporary art evening sale since 2016. What could have been a grand return to Mayfair’s King Street was instead a solid if largely uneventful auction. Over a brisk jaunt through 34 lots, the house pulled in a hammer total of £38 million ($48.4 million)—or £45.1 million ($57.5 million) with fees, enough to best the June 2016 total of £39.5 million ($52.8 million).

While there were only two works that were bought in during the sale, accounting for a 94% sell-through rate, only 20% of the works went for hammer prices above their high estimates. The overall hammer price just edged the total low estimate for the sale, which was £36.8 million ($47 million), but fell well short of the high estimate, which was £53.4 million ($68.1 million).


The biggest fireworks came just two lots into the sale, when auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opened bidding on Out of Body (2015), a painting by the budding star Tschabalala Self estimated to sell for between £40,000 ($50,950) and £60,000 ($76,430)—and announced that he had an astounding 19 bidders registered on the phones. The bidding went skyward in seconds, and after sparring from paddles in the room and bidders on the phones, Self’s painting eventually sold to Jose Mugrabi, sitting in the front of the room with the mega-collecting family’s advisor, former Sotheby’s COO Adam Chinn, for a hammer price of £300,000 ($382,000), five times the high estimate. With fees, the price was £371,250 ($471,322), smashing the record for the artist set in March at Phillips in London, when Lilith (2015) sold for £125,000 ($163,762).

The sale was a massive win for the anonymous consignor, who acquired the work from the Lower East Side outfit Thierry Goldberg Gallery in 2015 for what two sources said was less than $10,000—which would be a more than 3,000% return on investment. Last December, new paintings by Self were selling from the Thierry Goldberg booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach for prices between $10,000 and $60,000.

On Tuesday, Christie’s also set new auction records for Kara Walker, Jonas Burgert, Derek Boshier, and for a Gerhard Richter tapestry.

Top lots

Jean Dubuffet, Cérémonie (Ceremony), 1961. Courtesy of Christie’s.

  • Jean Dubuffet’s Cérémonie (Ceremony) (1961) hammered at £7.5 million ($9.4 million) over a low estimate of £7 million ($8.8 million). It sold to a woman sitting in the front of the room, and was consigned by a collector who bought it from the descendents of the collectors Ruth and Jack Wexler.
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Sabado por la Noche (Saturday Night) (1984) sold to a specialist on the phone for a hammer price of £7.2 million ($9.1 million), below its low estimate of £7.5 million ($9.5 million). The red-washed painting was acquired from Templon in Paris in 1993, and had been in private hands for over 25 years.
  • Francis Bacon’s Man at a Washbasin (ca. 1954) hammered at £4.32 million ($5.5 million), well below the low estimate of £5 million ($6.3 million). Like Self’s Out of Body painting, it was bought by Mugrabi, whose paddle number 191 was called out by Pylkkänen after his gavel came down. (The auctioneer, in the heat of the moment, also made reference to “Jose” as bidding got fierce on some lots—addressing paddle wielders by name is usually a no-no at evening sales.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sabado por la Noche (Saturday Night), 1984. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Mugrabi and his active paddle also snapped up the sale’s lone KAWS painting, NYT (COMPANION CLOSE UP) Brown (2013) for a hammer price of £1.5 million ($1.9 million), or £1.8 million ($2.3 million) with fees. While the hammer price was ahead of the low estimate of £1.2 million ($1.5 million), it was a far cry from the frenzied free-for-alls KAWS works have been known to spark in recent months.

Works that did overperform included Amy Sillman’s Cliff 1 (2005), which sold for a hammer price of £260,000 ($331,215) over a high estimate of £180,000 ($229,303), for a with-fees price of £323,250 ($411,790); as well as Antony Gormley’s cast iron sculpture Vise (2015), which hammered at £470,000 ($598,735) over a high estimate of £350,000 ($445,867), for a with-fees price of £575,250 ($732,814).


Philip Guston, Untitled, 1968. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Francis Bacon, Man at a Washbasin, ca. 1954. Courtesy of Christie’s.

When Christie’s decided to cancel its June evening sale of post-war and contemporary art in March 2017, it put out a full press release to explain the move. “The aim is to create two highly focused moments in the Post-War and Contemporary Art sales calendar that maximize London’s position at the crossroads of the world art market,” Pylkkänen said at the time, referring to the late winter sales and the October auctions during Frieze. After three years without an evening sale during this final week before the art market’s collective summer vacation season begins, this sale was less a chest-thumping return than a dipped toe to test the water. The top lots were ably sold—though we knew that would happen, as the Basquiat, Dubuffet, and Bacon all held guarantees—but the sale didn’t have the gravitas of an evening auction; at 34 lots, it seemed slight, especially compared to the 43-lot affair set to go down at Sotheby’s Wednesday night. But, it showed that London has a market willing to bid higher and higher for fresh-to-market work by on-the-rise women artists such as Self and Sillman.

“We managed to pull together exactly what the market wanted, which was effectively fresh material, things by young contemporary artists,” said Katharine Arnold, co-head of Christie’s post-war and contemporary art department in Europe, during the post-sale press conference.

The total towered over the tepid equivalent auction three years ago, and the brisk pace made for a sale that was less than an hour long—almost unprecedented for an evening auction. The atmosphere was summed up when Pylkkänen, hearing a glass hit the floor, said: “Somebody’s kicked over their gin and tonic!” This was a cocktail hour of a sale.

The June post-war and contemporary sales in London continue Wednesday with the day auction at Christie’s and the evening sale at Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesroom.

Nate Freeman