It is a worrying sign of the times when an evening sale that concludes after nearly four hours elicits collective gratitude rather than groans. So it was at tonight at Sotheby's in London, where a two-part spring evening sale shifted 73 lots in three-and-a-half hours, achieving £221m (with fees).
The evening was split into a 53-lot Modern and contemporary section (containing a glut of decidedly Impressionist works), which made £191.2m (with fees) against a presale estimate of £154.8-£201m (all estimates are calculated without fees) and the 20-lot ultra-contemporary "The Now" sale, which made £30m (with fees) against an estimate of £15.6-£22.3m. The sell-through rate for the entire evening was 88% by lot. Around 33% of the works carried guarantees.
The star lot of the evening was a René Magritte painting that became the most expensive work by the Belgian Surrealist at auction after it hammered for £51.5m (£59.4m with fees) That result is nearly triple the artist's previous record of £20.1m, achieved in 2018 at Sotheby's in New York.
L’empire des lumières (1961), one of the largest from a series of 17 paintings of the same name, was on offer from the collection of Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, the daughter of Magritte’s patron Pierre Crowet. The painting, which had never been sold until today, had remained with the Crowet family and was on long-term loan to the Musée Magritte in Brussels from 2009 to 2020.
Estimated in excess of £45m, the work received a marketing campaign rarely seen for a London spring sale, with its enigmatic silhouette emblazoned on the façade of Sotheby's New Bond Street salesroom. Bidding began at £40m and crept along in £1m increments in a three-way tussle that lasted for eight minutes, before going to Alex Branczik, senior director and chairman for modern and contemporary in Asia.
Preceding the Magritte was The Now sale, which was first trialled in New York in November to staggering success, as auction houses realised the benefits of front-loading sales with works by artists barely in their fourth decade to quickly establish records and get juices flowing. Steered by Oliver Barker, tonight's sale opened with Rachel Jones's rough and visceral 2020 painting A Slow Teething, which hammered for £490,000 (£617,400 with fees), against an estimate of £50,000-£70,000.
Notably, tonight's auctions included a decent amount of live action with Salman Toor's Floating Bookshelf II (2017, est £80,000-£120,000) going to a bidder in the room for a hammer price of £190,000 (£239,400 with fees). Stiff competition for the 2019 Shara Hughes painting Naked Lady held up the sale for nearly 10 minutes, attracting the dogged attention of specialist David Rothschild, on behalf of a phone bidder in Palm Beach, but hammering to a woman in the room for £1.3m (£2m with fees), breaking the artist's auction record.
But this energy was not sustained for perhaps the most anticipated work of this leg: the Cecily Brown painting at the centre of a recent scandal between socialite collectors Michael Xufu Huang and Federico Debernardi. Carrying a third party guarantee, Faeriefeller (2018) attracted just two quick bids and sold for £2.8m (with fees), a considerable markup on the $700,000 Huang paid for the work, but well below Brown's £5.1m auction record.
The decision to begin with frothy works was wise as, after a short break and a swap to auctioneer Helena Newman, the sale's second half commenced with most works hammering around low estimate, save for a few standouts.
These included El Anatsui's bottle cap sculpture Wade in the Water (2017-21), which achieved £1.15m (with fees) against an £850,000 high estimate; David Hockney's 6th-wide painting Garrowby Hill (2017), depicting the rolling East Yorkshire landscape, which made £14m (with fees) against a £10.5m high estimate.
Six works by Claude Monet were offered, of which four sold. The first on the block, Nympheas, a waterlily painting from around 1915, came from a private Japanese collection and hadn't been offered at auction for 40 years. It was estimated at £15m-£20m and sold to a European phone bidder on the line with specialist Simon Stock for £23.2m (with fees).
Some lots later, the remaining five were trotted out in quick succession to lesser success: of them one was withdrawn to be sold at Sotheby's New York May evening sales; another was passed; an 1897 floral work hammered at £7m (with fees) against a £10m low estimate; a prune still-life made its low estimate at £1.3m (with fees) and a coastal painting from 1897 hammered at nearly the high estimate of £5m (£5.3m with fees).
This is the second evening sale in the London season to be conducted under the shadow of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, following Tuesday's marathon sale at Christie's, which brought in a total of £249m (with fees). The week's last major evening sale takes place at Russian-owned auction house Phillips—which has called for an end to the conflict—on Thursday night.
Of the effect of sanctions from the West on Russia on tonight's sales, a Sotheby's spokesperson says: "Understandably, Russian interest around these sales was muted. We are closely following the developments around sanction lists and will comply with any regulations put in place."