Apollo Magazine (UK)
Susan Moore reviews modern and contemporary auctions in London
In London in February, recently restituted Impressionist paintings drew encouraging levels of bidding, while a new record was set for Tamara de Lempicka, and a bowler-hatted figure by Magritte – who else? – made big bucks at Christie’s
Despite the slim offerings and consequently modest totals, London’s February Impressionist and Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art auctions were on the whole heartening affairs. What the Brexit-beleaguered London market needed to demonstrate was that it could still sell fresh-to-the-market and reasonably estimated works of art for good prices, and – no less importantly – draw global bidding. It did. These sale categories, after all, are the least parochial of the art market, and anyone who thinks they depend on a local audience is much mistaken. Collectors do not usually mind much where they consign or buy; what alarms them is the uncertainty of fluctuating exchange rates. For many reasons, in recent years salerooms across the globe have been battling to persuade cautious owners to consign works of art to auction.
Thus it was hardly surprising that almost half the total of Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist evening sale on 4 February, which launched the week, was provided by three paintings recently restituted to the heirs of the French Jewish property developer Gaston Prosper Lévy – restitutions invariably find their way to auction. One of them, Camille Pissarro’s Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu of 1887–88 also fetched the top price of the auction, chased by six bidders before selling for £13.3m, more than £1m above the top estimate. Like Paul Signac’s La Corne d’Or. Matin of 1907, which again sold a little above target (£7.6m; Fig. 3), it had come fresh from the walls of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to which it had been assigned in 2000.
From long-term loan at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, Britain’s pre-eminent collection of German Expressionist art, came one of the few works to soar over estimate. This was a glowing little Franz Marc
on long-term loan, Zwei blaue Esel (Pferd und Esel), a brilliantly hued and stylised gouache acquired the year of its creation, 1912, and remaining in the same family ever since (Fig. 4). Estimated at £1m–£1.5m, it fetched more than £4m. Just four works failed to sell – that said, the sale of 10 of the 33 lots was guaranteed. For context, this sale’s £49.9m total was around half of last February’s, and a little more than a quarter of that realised in 2017.
A feature of this new market reality, with its dearth of major works by great artists, is an appetite for outstanding works by minor masters. A case in point was Jean Metzinger’s Le Cycliste (1912), also offered by Sotheby’s, a striking combination of French Cubism and the dynamism and movement advocated by the Italian Futurists. It came with expectations of £1.5m–£2m, and left with a new auction record price and a bill of just over £3m. This sale also saw an enthusiastic response to a work by an artist relatively few in the room would have known – a mesmerising oil on canvas by the Dutch magic realist painter Pyke Koch (1901–91). Florentijnse tuin (Florentine Garden) of 1938 (Fig. 1) features a blindfolded woman apparently abandoned during a game of blind man’s buff and left to feel her way out of a formal garden menaced by circling sentinels of clipped cypress, executed in a cool, restricted palette and hyper-realist style – a Magritte without the visual tricks. Koch was obsessed with the Italian Renaissance trope of the hortus conclusus or enclosed garden, taking as his inspiration the Renaissance revival grounds of the Actons’ Villa La Pietra. A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a work with an estimate of just £200,000– £300,0000 to make it into an evening sale. The canvas, among Koch’s works exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1938, sold for a record £555,000.
Unlike Sotheby’s, Christie’s staged a separate Surrealist sale – and how well it did, providing £43.9m towards the evening’s total of £106.8m and half its top lots. Magritte was represented by no fewer than seven works, with his A la rencontre du plaisir of 1962 (Fig. 2) realising the highest price of the evening, £18.9m (estimate £8m–£12m), the second highest found for the artist at auction. This image of a bowler-hatted man seen from behind in silhouette, gazing at the moon, had been acquired directly from the artist in 1962 and was making its auction debut. The obsession with works fresh to the market is understandable – as art fairs often demonstrate, there is enough of the same-old out there in circulation – but a good picture is no less good for having been sold the year before, just as a fresh painting is no better.
Certainly an auction appearance a mere decade ago did not seem to diminish the widespread appeal of the top lot of the Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale. Tamara de Lempicka’s polished Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932) was another crowd-pleaser. Estimated at £8m–£12m, it changed hands for a record £16.4m, almost £3m clear of the artist’s previous record, set only three months before. The Lempicka was as slickly superficial as George Grosz’s Gefährliche Strasse of 1918 was densely symbolic and difficult; it was heartening to see this, too, bid up way beyond its £4.5m–£6.5m estimate to make another auction record: £9.7m. The sale was 84 per cent sold by lot, 94 per cent by value.
Christie’s Contemporary Art evening sale on 12 February was more dispiriting. Warhol rather than Magritte was out in force, but there was little else in the way of big names, or top-notch material. Its £56.2m total was the lowest in a decade, though again the sellthrough rates were impressive.
Sotheby’s 46-lot sale had brought in twice that total the previous evening, although there was a disappointing response to its star turn. There was nothing unappealing about David Hockney’s The Splash of 1966 except, presumably, the size of its guarantee, which seems to have deterred potential bidders. This classic Californian pool scene, hailed in the catalogue as ‘an irrefutably famous and undeniably rare painting of masterpiece calibre and mythic proportion’, is not large, although described as ‘immersive’, and it very possibly sold on a single bid to its guarantor, changing hands for £23.1m. Its consignor had paid £2.9m in 2006.
Most lots sold on target, but three notable exceptions doubled expectations: Banksy’s Vote to Love (£1.2m), Gunther Uecker’s nail relief weisses feld of 1982 (£1.5m) and Maurizio Cattelan’s distressing pseudo-crucifixion, a life-size resin model of a girl nailed down face forward in a packing crate. Untitled, an editioned piece executed in 2007, which also changed hands for £1.5m, was one of eight works sold to Asian bidders. Morris Louis’s vibrant cascade of coloured stripes, Sidle (1962), a celebration of pure colour, was also widely admired, selling for £915,000. This £92.5m sale had just three unsold lots (a Richter was withdrawn).
Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art evening sale realised £21.2m, and like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, found high prices for the work of the young artists presented. Amoako Boafo’s The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) came with an estimate of £30,000–£50,000 and sold for a mighty £675,000 (Fig. 5). All in all, London managed the crisis well. The world now faces another with the coronavirus, already taking a lamentable toll on communities, markets and upcoming fairs, sales and all cultural events. o