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  • London's art market looking stronger after March sales

    Takako Yamaguchi (b. 1952)

    Catherine and Midnight

    Signed twice (on the stretcher)
    Oil, acrylic and metal leaf on canvas,
    121.9 by 203.2 cm. 48 by 80 in.
    Executed in 1994

    Photo credit: Sotheby's

    London’s spring sales of Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary art opened at Sotheby’s on March 6 with a 60-lot sale that made £100 million against a presale estimate of £74.8 million to £106.5 million.

    As the first marquee sales of the year, many were looking to the London auctions for an indicator of whether the softer market of 2023 has improved. Signs that the middle market may still be a bit sticky were evident in the 10 lots withdrawn before the Sotheby’s sale, including a rare Blue Period Picasso portrait of Luis Vilaro.

    Estimated at between £5 million and £7 million, it never made it to the block due to lack of presale interest.


    The sale began with the most contemporary works, effectively The Now sale, which is no longer a stand-alone event.

    Placed up front was Catherine and Midnight (1994), the first work by Japanese American Takako Yamaguchi in a public auction to appear in a major sale room. Its £400,000 to £500,000 presale estimate may have come as a shock to some. Works by the West Coast artist had appeared in smaller, regional sales since 2010 but never sold for more than $10,000. That is until a well-timed sale last month on Loic Gouzer’s online auction platform, Fair Warning , in which one of her works sold for $991,875.

    Offered with a guarantee, three phone bidders competed until it sold for a record £889,000.

    The big disappointment in an otherwise triumphant evening for contemporary female artists was Nicole Eisenman’s Biergarten (2007), estimated to fetch between £500,000 and £700,000, which failed to raise a single bid.


    The presale announcement also signaled Sotheby’s interest in the Impressionist market this year, which marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Impressionism. Without any first rank examples, the sale provided a testing ground for the middle-range works where good examples were looking to attract new buyers and double up in price over a 20-year period or less.

    Monet's Arbres au bord de l’eau, printemps à Giverny (1885), for example, which was bought in Paris in 2002 for $2.6 million. Its £5 million low estimate more than doubled the previous price and the work easily fetched more than that, selling for £7.7 million.

    Works by historically overlooked women also fared well in the sale. The best performer in the category was Leonor Fini’s L’envers d’une geographie (1964), last sold in 2013 for £76,275 to an American collector. Fini has been long disregarded but is currently enjoying a moment in the sun and this work rose above estimates to fetch £571,500.

    The Modern section of the sale was led, predictably, by Picasso, whose musketeer painting, Homme à la Pipe (1964), was the top lot of the sale selling within estimate for £13.7 million, though the best musketeer paintings have far surpassed that price.


    The London market looked a little stronger after Christie’s followed Sotheby’s £100 million opener with its 20th/21st Century and Art of the Surreal auctions. The back-to-back sales of Impressionist, Modern, Surrealist and contemporary art on Thursday, March 7, brought in £196.7 million against a £166 million to £233 million estimate.

    Seven lots were withdrawn of the total 105 across the two sales, with the total being 17 percent up on Christie’s equivalent sale last year.

    David Hockney California Yahoo News UK

    The top lot of the 20th/21st Century sale, which included 87 lots before withdrawals, was Francis Bacon’s Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, which had an estimate of £15 million to £20 million and sold for £19.6 million.

    Bidding for the Bacon was dominated by dealer Nicholas MacLean, who took it to £16.7 million. Then, waiting for his moment, former Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art Europe, Francis Outred, seated on the other side of the sale room, signaled a bid at £16.8 million and the contest was over. The final price, including premium, is the highest realized for a non-figure painting by the artist.

    The other star lot of the evening was David Hockney’s early 1960s swimming pool painting, California. The work, held in a private German collection for the last 40 years, fetched the second highest price of the sale, for which his client had to outstrip a guarantor to win it for £18.7 million.

    Rene Magritte L'ami intime Christie's

    The sale had opened with the customary crop of hot contemporary artists led this time by Allison Katz’s Snowglobe (2018), which quadrupled its estimate to set a record of £277,200. The price must have been a lot more than the seller would have paid (lower five figures) when it was first shown at Jake Miller’s The Approach gallery in London

    There was little in this sale to really test the Impressionist market, apart from an atmospheric Monet's Matinée sur la Seine temps net (1897), which fetched a mid-estimate price of £14.4 million.

    By the end of the 20th/21st Century sale, the room had thinned out, but it soon refilled in anticipation of the Surrealist sale, where 25 lots were expected to fetch £48 million to £79 million. In the event, 22 of them sold for a combined £59 million, half of them for hammer prices above their estimates. Half of the top 10 lots were by René Magritte, led by the top lot of the week in London, L'ami intime which appeared to sell to the guarantor under estimate £33.7 million. That’s still a substantial gain on the £90,000 it cost in 1980.


    Phillips London’s £13.7 million 20th century and contemporary art sale on March 7 may have fallen short of its presale estimate and last year’s equivalent sale total, but it’s worth remembering that Phillips had the most improved bottom line of the big three auction houses in 2023, year on year. In this sale, there were enough positive results for some artists, largely in the contemporary sector, to extract at least some optimism for 2024.

    The first lot, Malga, The Place in Which we Gather (2022), was the first work by the contemporary Saudi Arabian artist Alia Ahmad to appear at auction. While Phillips normally hunts down successful new artists on the primary market to propel their sales, in this case the work was brought to them.

    They knew little about the artist apart from a show that had just opened at White Cube in Paris. The artist is also currently included in More than Meets the Eye, a showcase exhibition of modern and contemporary Saudi Arabian art in the Alula Art Festival, indicating official approval back home.

    As the bidding opened, eager buyers on the phone and online in New York, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and China entered the fray, raising the price quickly from £20,000 to £75,000 from China before the lot hammered at £80,000 ($101,600)—four times its low estimate.

    Author: The Editor |Date: March 16, 2024