Auctions Market United Kingdom

London auctions receive a tired reception

After an exhausting string of fairs, auctions and exhibitions, the two-month Modern and contemporary art season closed with a whimper

One of the surprise hits during the London sales was Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966, which sold for £13.3m (est £10m-£15m) at Sotheby’s

A rather weary set of evening auctions in London this week meant that the two-month Modern and contemporary art season ended on a flat note. The sales came in within expectations, but these were set relatively low—£70.3m at Christie’s on 25 June (est £56m to £72m); £75.8m at Sotheby’s on 26 June (est £66m to £94m) and £12.3m at the short-but-sweet Phillips auction on 27 June (est £11.9m to £18.1m). Last year’s equivalent sales made nearly a third more (total £225.4m) and, more relevantly, the equivalent three auctions in New York in mid May brought in nearly four times the revenue, with over half a billion pounds sterling made over three evenings—including Christie’s record total in this category of $495m (£326.7m).

“It was a bit disappointing, and felt more tired this year than others” said the Salzburg and Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. “To have the New York sales in May, then the Venice biennale and the [Art] Basel fair meant that the atmosphere was a bit thin, the material patchy and everyone seemed exhausted,” he said. His purchases included Damien Hirst’s 1996 spin painting Beautiful, Shattered, Mellow, Exploding, Paint-filled Balloons Painting for £422,500 at Sotheby's (est £250,000-£350,000). However, he said, “I was less active than expected.”

There were some surprise hits despite the varied fare. At Christie’s, an artist record was set for Enrico Castellani when his Superficie bianca n.34, made for the 1966 Venice biennale, sold for £1.9m (est £400,000-£600,000). At Sotheby’s, Francis Bacon’s triptych from the same year, Three studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, went for £13.3m (est £10m-£15m) to Alex Corcoran of London’s Lefevre Fine Art gallery, despite being what some dealers referred to as “known to the market” (ie, touted around for a while).

Equally, there were some works that simply failed to attract bidding, including two paintings by Tom Wesselmann from 1962 at Sotheby’s that had fairly punchy estimates (Still Live #5½, est £900,000-£1.2m and Great American Nude #34, est £3m-£4m) and two works by Blinky Palermo, from 1972 and 1965 at Christie’s. There was generally less enthusiasm for Andy Warhol this season: three of the nine works by the artist offered during the evening auctions went unsold, including a trademark Colored Campbell's Soup Can silkscreen, 1965 (est £2.25m-£3.25m) at Christie’s.

Despite New York’s relative success in this category this season, the auction houses point to London’s more global audience as one of the advantages of selling in this city. Christie’s specialists said that bidding across the sale was evenly distributed between Europe, North America and Asia, a new phenomenon, while Sotheby’s reported bidding from 38 countries, with 25% of works selling to regions outside of Europe and the US.

Note: pre-sale estimates do not include the buyer’s premium; results do

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