Auctions Contemporary art Market United Kingdom

London contemporary sales put their best faces forward

Representational works and portraits perform well at Christie’s and Sotheby’s

Francis Bacon’s small triptych of his lover George Dyer sold at Sotheby’s for £26.7m (est £15m-£20m) to a European buyer on the phone

There has been an appetite at auction recently for so-called “process” and abstract paintings by artists such as Lucien Smith, Oscar Murillo, Christopher Wool and Gerhard Richter. But at Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary evening sales this week, buyers were in the market for representational and classical paintings.

Figurative works, and landscapes to a lesser extent, were in demand at Sotheby’s on 30 June. Francis Bacon’s small triptych of his lover George Dyer was the most expensive work of the sale, which totalled £93.2m (est £67.9m-£89.7m), with 86.4% sold by lot. The portrait, painted in 1964 at the height of their affair, sold for £26.7m (est £15m-£20m) to a European buyer on the phone. Peter Doig’s rainbow tunnel landscape, Country-rock (wing mirror), 1999, took the second spot. It went for £8.5m (estimate upwards of £9m), a record for the Scottish artist until Larry Gagosian bought Doig’s self-portrait, Gasthof, 2002-04, for £9.9m (est £3m-£5m) at Christie’s the following night.

At Sotheby’s, figurative works with abstract leanings also set records for the young Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie, and the British painter, Hurvin Anderson, a former student of Doig. Ghenie’s The Fake Rothko, 2010, quadrupled its high estimate to sell for £1.4m. Anderson achieved £542,500 (est £250,000-£350,000) for a painting from his “Peter’s Series”, but Christie’s doubled this record on Tuesday night with a £1.3m result for a painting of an empty barbershop consigned by Charles Saatchi.

“The focus has shifted towards figurative art,” said Alex Rotter, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, after the sale. “We have a younger generation of figurative painters coming through off the back of Bacon and Doig.”

At Christie’s on 1 July, portraiture prevailed. The sale fetched £99.4m in total (est £79m-£114.9m) and 84% was sold by lot. A portrait by Bacon again took the top spot, this time a single canvas of Lucian Freud from 1967 once owned by Roald Dahl, which sold for £11.5m (estimate in the region of £8m to £12m). The aforementioned Doig self-portrait was the second most expensive work, while Andy Warhol’s late, garish Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986, was third, despite only just creeping over the lower estimate of £6m to sell for £6.4m.

Christie’s also marketed Tracey Emin’s unmade bed as a self-portrait of sorts—perhaps justifiably so. Before the work was unveiled to the press last week, Emin got into the bed to fluff up the duvet in a gesture equivalent to Bacon’s furious brushstrokes or Doig’s ethereal mark making. Consigned by Saatchi, My Bed, 1998, made a record £2.5m against a middle estimate of £1m, selling to Emin’s dealer Jay Jopling.

Meanwhile, on 2 July, Phillips offered a selection of process and abstract paintings by younger and mid-career artists, as is customary for the auction house. Works in this vein by Rudolph Stingel, Mark Bradford, Wade Guyton, Sterling Ruby and Tauba Auerbach all made the top ten, selling for between £842,500 and £386,500. Phillips’s chief executive Michael McGinnis acknowledged the auction house’s tendency for “minimal” and “cutting edge” paintings, but said it would “not refuse a more representational style of painting if it was offered”. The sale totalled £9.9m (est £7.8m-£11.2m), with 85% sold by lot. All totals include buyers’ fees; estimates do not.

For a report on London’s Impressionist and Modern art sale, see our forthcoming July-August issue

Consigned by Saatchi, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998, made a record £2.5m against a middle estimate of £1m, selling to the artist's dealer Jay Jopling
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7 Jul 14
18:59 CET


It has happened!Contrary to the art critics assurance that it was finished figurative art is back. Why?Because as long as we inhabit a body artists will continue to interperate that experience and viewers will relate to it.

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