Auctions Market United Kingdom

Trade breathes a sigh of relief as London auctions bring in over £370m in first week

Buyers at the Impressionist and Modern art sales were undeterred by the economic backdrop—and Sotheby’s new premiums

We didn't see him, but the illusionist David Copperfield was the underbidder on Monet’s Les Peupliers à Giverny, 1887, which was deaccessioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and sold for £10.8m (est £9m-£12m) at Sotheby’s

There was palpable relief this week as sales at London’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist auctions met expectations, while hardly setting the art market on fire.

The mood was uncertain going into the first week of a fortnight of high-end sales given the falling oil price and its effect on currencies and stock markets worldwide—never mind the changes at the top at Sotheby’s and Christie’s since December. While Russian buying was “softer”, according to Jussi Pylkkännen, Christie’s global president, bidding in general was strong and international.

In total, the evening sales made £186.4m at Sotheby’s on 3 February (within its £139.2m-£196.2m estimate and the highest-value single sale hosted in London) and Christie’s lower-valued £147m sale on 4 February came in ahead of expectations, once its premium was added (est £92.8m-£133.8m).

In terms of material, Sotheby’s led the march with some prime examples of high Impressionism (notably five pleasing works by Claude Monet), while Christie’s Surrealism section, boosted by a dozen works from a highly-regarded Belgian collection, was outstanding.

It is unusual to go into a major sale season with the two main auction houses charging different buying fees (rates below), though this seemed neither to put off buyers at the pricier Sotheby’s nor to boost the relatively cheaper Christie’s. For example, the first Monet on the block at Sotheby’s, Vase de pivoines, 1882, which sold at a hammer price of £1.9m, actually cost its telephone bidder £2,277,000 rather than the £2,210,500 it would have cost last month (an additional £66,500), or indeed if it had sold through Christie’s this month. The extra four or five figures might make little difference to hungry bidders, but added up, it conjured an extra £2.1m from thin air at Sotheby’s this week, suggesting its rival could follow suit. “We are close to the ceiling in terms of how high the percentage can go,” says Harry Smith, the chairman of the art advisory firm Gurr Johns, “but they can constantly raise the thresholds.”

Surreal season

One of London’s distinctions is February’s dedicated Surrealism sales and here, most experts agreed, Christie’s had considerably more edge.

Energetic bidding helped propel its 36-lot sale well above its upper estimate of £53.5m to £66.7m, its highest ever for Surrealist art and its first above $100m—though this is aided by a favourable exchange rate. Sotheby’s 23-lot sale brought in £16.2m, below its lower estimate of £18.7m.

“Christie’s has got the Surrealist market,” Smith says, adding that “their success was largely based around one collection.” This, belonging to the Belgian businessman Pierre Salik, included eight works by René Magritte (all sold, seven above estimate), as well as Joan Miró’s L’Oiseau au plumage déployé vole vers l’arbre argenté, 1953, which sold for £9.2m (est £7m-£9m). The night’s highest-value lot wasn’t Cézanne’s Vue Sur L’Estaque et Le Chateau d’If, as expected, but another post-war Surrealist work by Miró from a different European collection, Painting (Women, Moon, Birds), 1950, which soared to £15.5m (est £4m-£7m).

Magritte fared well at Sotheby’s too: notably his early L’éloge de l’espace, 1927-28, which sold for £1.1m (est £700,000-£900,000) Meanwhile, an important work by Óscar Domínguez, the Dalí-esque Toro y Torero (Composition au taureau), 1934-35, whose first owner was the leading Surrealist artist André Breton, sold within estimate for £1.8m to Smith’s advisory business, Gurr Johns.

American presence felt

Buying and bidding in the salerooms was largely from the usual suspects, though more Americans than usual seem to have made the trip, perhaps feeling flush from the rising dollar. Fresher faces (in London at least) included Nancy Whyte, a private dealer in New York, whose purchases included Christie’s cover lot, Paul Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If, around 1883-85—sold from Samuel Courtauld’s private collection—for £13.5m (est £8m-£12m). The illusionist, David Copperfield, bidding remotely, was the underbidder on Monet’s Les Peupliers à Giverny, 1887, which was deaccessioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and sold for £10.8m (est £9m-£12m) at Sotheby’s.

At the day sales—of lesser-quality, but higher-volume, material—Sotheby’s, which reported bidding from 52 countries, made £25.6m (est £19.6m-£28.3m). Christie’s day sale had yet to end as we went to press (est £11.8m-£17.7m), but its works on paper auction on Thursday morning made £8m (est £5.8m-£8.6m).

The highest price across all sales this week unsurprisingly came courtesy of Monet—his Le Grand Canal, 1908, sold at the low end of its £20m-£30m estimate, at £23.7m, via the telephone at Sotheby’s.

London’s contemporary and Modern art sales season begins next week.

Note: Sotheby’s buyers’ premium rates in London are 25% for the first £100,000 (previously up to £50,000); 20% between £100,000 and £1.8m (previously between £50,000 and £1m) and 12% above this. Christie’s rates are at Sotheby’s previous levels.

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