Sotheby’s specialists were fizzing with excitement at the close of the firm’s contemporary art evening sale in London on Thursday evening. “What a fantastic night!” exulted auctioneer Oliver Barker; “It’s great to be back!”
He had every reason to be delighted. The 44-lot auction, the first live session to be conducted in the Bond Street rooms for almost two years, had trumped pre-sale expectations of £38.2m-£52.8m and racked up £55.46m without fees and £65.94m with premium.
A substantial chunk of that result was due to lot 7—a highly auspicious number in China—“that” Banksy. It had sold in the same rooms in 2018 for £1m and had partly shredded after the hammer fell, due to a hidden mechanism. The unidentified European buyer kept it, and it was rebaptised Love is in the Bin and, according to the specialist Alex Branczik: “It is not the same painting, it is a new work.”
Excitement was at fever pitch as it came up for sale with dozens of the 200 attendees holding up their cell phones to film the action. According to Sotheby’s, it took ten minutes to sell, with Barker exclaiming at one point, to general laughter, “I can’t tell you how terrified I am to put down the hammer”.
Nine bidders—online, on the telephone and in the room—competed for the work, and it hammered at £16m (£18.582m with fees), to Nick Buckley Wood, the former Asia director for Thaddaeus Ropac in Hong Kong and now Sotheby’s director of private sales in Asia, who was bidding on the telephone for a “private Asian client”.
While the Banksy was the headline act—and the room gradually emptied after its sale—there was much else to celebrate, or even criticise, in the session. It was the night for the hottest young artists, with eight making their debut in an evening auction: a draped portrait by Ewa Juszkiewicz, Maria (After Johannes Cornelisz Verspronk, 2013), made ten-times estimate at £352,800; Flora Yukhnovich’s blurry riff on Fragonard, I’ll have what she’s having (2020), shattered expectations and climbed to £2.3m while Jadé Fadojutimi’s abstract The barefooted scurry home (2017), galloped to £825,700. Whether these price levels can be maintained in the future is another matter.
As well as the hot youngsters, more established artists did well, with nine classic Italian works, all on their first auction outing, finding buyers well over estimate. And the three large works by Gerhard Richter, fresh as the day they were squeegeed in 1985 and from the Lauffs collection, sold for a comfortable and combined total of £23.5m. Only six lots were bought in. A quarter of the registrants were under 40, Barker said, and Branczik—soon to move to Hong Kong for the auction house—noted that a lot of the bidding on the younger artists came from Asia. And a spectator by my side opined: “People are trying to get their money out of Hong Kong while they still can.”