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British art comes out on top at Christie’s 250th anniversary sale

Despite an £18m Lucian Freud going unsold, the sale proved the market is strong

There was a sense of occasion during last night’s curated anniversary sale, which saw Christie’s offer 31 lots of art by British artists.

The sale fetched £87.2m (£99.5m with fees), just below the total estimate of £95.7m-£138m, and saw an 87% sell-through rate, with 27 out of the 31 lots finding buyers. The only disappointment of the sale was Lucian Freud’s Ib and her Husband (1992), which carried an estimate of £18m and failed to sell. It had previously sold at Christie’s New York in 2007 for $19.4m with fees. “Sometimes works just don’t perform as we’d expect,” said the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen after the sale.

The rest of the sale took a much more positive turn, however, with auction records set for seven artists—Frederic Leighton, Henry Moore, David Roberts, Frank Auerbach, Lynn Chadwick, Bridget Riley and Thomas Daniell. The lot of the evening was Henry Moore’s monumental Reclining Figure (1951), cast as an edition of five, which sold above estimate for £22m (£24.7m with fees). Bridget Riley’s Untitled (Diagonal Curve) (1966) almost doubled the artist's previous record, selling for £3.8m (£4.3m with fees; est £2.5m-£3.5m). Riley herself was in the building during the sale, but was taking in her other works in a non-selling exhibition downstairs and was “uninterested in what her works were selling for,” according to Pylkkanen.

The benefits of a devalued pound sterling for foreign buyers were made apparent by the large number of Asian and US bidders on the phones. At least two spirited Asian bidders helped make an unlikely star of Alfred James Munnings' painting The Queen and ‘Aureole’ in the Paddock at Epsom before the Coronation Cup (1954). Estimated at £400,000-£600,000, lengthy bidding saw the work eventually sell for £1.8m (£2.1m with fees). “The Queen was undoubtedly a contributing factor,” said John Stainton, the international director and head of British paintings, after the sale.

A number of house guarantees were converted last minute into third-party guarantees, indicating that the house may have been a little nervous given the current political and financial landscape, but specialists were pleased, and no doubt relieved, by the result. “We’ve never had 32 countries bidding on British art before,” Pylkkannen said.

The contemporary sales this week proved the market is holding up well, and indeed the only disappointment of the June sales was Christie’s Impressionist and Modern evening auction of 22 June. Coincidentally, or not, the noticeable lack of bidders that night occurred on the eve of the UK’s EU referendum vote, at a moment when global markets and currency traders were expecting to see the pound sterling soar against other currencies as a result of the UK voting to stay in Europe. For foreign buyers, it would have arguably been the worst night to buy art, as they could have risked spending much more on a work once their own currencies had been converted.