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Subdued Sotheby’s sale, despite record for Josef Albers

Contemporary auction followed a lacklustre Italian sale, prompting calls for the latter to be shelved

Anny Shaw

Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square Temperate (1957), on the left, during Sotheby's auction on 5 October in London Courtesy of Sotheby's

Sotheby’s pulled in £42.3m (£50m with fees) at its contemporary evening sale last night, below its low estimate of £46.7m. Despite falling short, it was the highest total for an October evening sale, the house said, and a half decent result given the weak Italian sale that immediately preceded it.

With the earlier sale, Sotheby’s had gambled with a new formula of including non-Italian artists—a strategy that didn't pay off, with 14 out of 45 lots going unsold. The auction made £15.3m (£18.4m with fees), well below its estimate of £19.5m to £27.2m.

Some dealers called for the Italian sale to be shelved. “There’s no point when they are including lots like Agnetti and other third tier Italian artists just for the sake of it,” the London dealer Omer Tiroche said afterwards, adding that Sotheby’s staffers had told him “no one is looking at Fontana”.

Before the auction Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, acknowledged the increasing difficulty of sourcing first-class Italian works from private collections. “There’s good scope for post-war to be wrapped up into an Italian or European sale,” he added.

But the post-war category didn't quite hit its stride either. The sale was marred by the failure to find a buyer for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Bronze (est £5m-£7m), one of nine guaranteed lots. Although created in his “golden year” of 1982, the painting was considered overpriced and was bought in at £4.7m. “The work should have been at half that estimate,” Tiroche said. “Generally speaking, estimates seemed high. We saw very little Asian bidding for some reason, which certainly made things less lively.”

High points included a record for Josef Albers for a zinging canvas painted in 1957, which sold for £1.9m (£2.3m with fees), and a Grand Canyon study by David Hockney, which fetched £5.2m (£6m with fees). The result, his second highest price at auction, was not doubt egged on by the inclusion of the painting in the Yorkshireman's major retrospective at Tate Britain earlier this year. Meanwhile, an underbid from the Nahmads helped Cy Twombly’s Untitled oil and graphite canvas from 1962 fetch £5.6m (£6.4m with fees; est £5.5m-£7.5m)—the highest price of the evening.

Four of the 47 lots were withdrawn, two of which were announced before the sale, possibly an indication of sellers’ last-minute jitters.

All eyes are now on Christie’s, which could trump Sotheby’s with a single lot tonight: Francis Bacon’s Pope painting is expected to sell for £60m. “Christie’s has pulled out the big guns and their results tonight are probably going to surpass the total of Sotheby’s June and October results,” Tiroche said. “But let’s see if they can sustain that through to next October’s sale or whether this is just a one off.”