For those sitting in the saleroom of Sotheby’s last night, the turmoil on the financial markets following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) seemed a distant memory.
Records tumbled for Keith Haring and Jenny Saville, whose monumental “body pile” painting, Shift, last seen at the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition in 1997, was bought by Liu Yiqian’s Long Museum for £6m (£6.6m with fees; est £1.5m-£2m). The Chinese billionaire beat four other bidders including the US mega dealer Larry Gagosian to win the canvas, which will be exhibited in Shanghai in a show of international female artists called “She”.
“It’s good to see that some British exports are still desirable,” Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker said before banging the gavel to hearty applause.
The far-reaching implications for British exports are still unknown, but some dealers said Brexit could benefit the art market in the short term as investors seek refuge in art as an asset class and savvy collectors search for a bargain with the pound so devalued. “It’s such an international market. If you are looking at something in terms of sterling it is a lot less expensive than it was three days ago,” said the London dealer Harry Blain. Discounts have been estimated at around 10%.
The results for Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale were reassuring. The auction house made £43.9m (£52.2m with fees; est £35.4m-£50m). The sell-through rate was a strong 87%. But the trimmed sale on 29 June represented a 60% drop in value from last year.
Other success stories on the night included Jean Debuffet and Adrian Ghenie, whose baboon and moth painting, The Hunted (2010), sold to a private Asian collector on the phone for £1.6m (£1.7m with fees, almost three times its high estimate of £600,000).
Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Europe, conceded that the uncertainty of the EU referendum had made it harder to consign works, but the results show that the “passion for art collecting continues to over-ride broader concerns about the economy”.
The results were indeed a boost for Britain. “It’s set to be the wettest June on record, the England team is out of the Euros and we have left the EU. But this sale was very encouraging,” Blain said.