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  • New Masters taking the stage...London Marquee auctions, March 22

    René Magritte (1898 - 1967)

    L’empire des lumières

    Signed Magritte (lower right); signed Magritte and titled on the reverse
    Oil on canvas,
    114.5 by 146cm., 45 by 57½in.
    Painted in 1961.

    Photo credit: Sotheby's

    With the hearts and minds of everybody understandably focusing on the developments of the escalating Ukrainian crisis, last week in London saw major auction house powerhouses Christie’s and Sotheby’s pulling off a combined £470m from their Modern, Post War & Contemporary Art evening sales.

    At Sotheby's, the evening was split into a 53-lot Modern and contemporary section, which made £191.2 (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 60% 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 £51m (£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 bidding battle for it climbed to £59.4m after a tense three-way bidding battle to become the highest valued painting we have ever sold in Europe and nearly trebling the previous record for the artist.


    Before the evening sale, the stage was taken by ‘The Now’ sale, whose catalogue was filled with works by artists barely in their fourth decade. The auction immediately started with a remarkable result, when Rachel Jones's rough and visceral 2020 painting 'A Slow Teething' was hammered for £490,000 (£617,400 with fees), against an estimate of £50,000-£70,000.

    Elsewhere, Salman Toor's 'Floating Bookshelf II' (2017, est. £80,000-£120,000) went to a bidder in the room for a hammer price of £190,000 (£239,400 with fees). Fierce competition was also experienced for the 2019 Shara Hughes painting 'Naked Lady', as it nearly took 10 minutes to auctioneer Oliver Barker to hammer it to a woman in the room for £1.3m (£2m with fees), breaking the artist's auction record.

    After the section dedicated to the emerging names, new auctioneer Helena Newman took the gavel and led the second half of the evening.

    Apart from the piece by Magritte, six works by Claude Monet were offered, of which four sold. The first on the block, 'Nymphéas', 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 offered 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).


    The night before, on March 1st, a similar marathon of auctions – happening live in Shanghai, then London to end with some Surrealism - had taken place at Christie's, with an overall £249m achieved. It was the auction house’s highest total for an evening event in London; the sell-through rate was 90 percent.

    In total, 110 works were offered: 20 in Shanghai, 68 in London’s main sale, and 22 in its Surrealist offering. And, as it has become customary in recent years, a significant part of the whole bidding activity came from Asia: around a third of bidders, to be precise, with 28 percent being millennials. The top lot of the evening was Franz Marc's 'The Foxes (Die Füchse)' (1913), which was recently restituted from a German museum to the heirs of the Jewish collectors who sold it to escape the Nazis. A phone bidder in London won the work for a record £42.7m, exceeding its estimate of £35m and more than doubling the artist’s previous highest record.


    Other top lots included Lucian Freud’s 'Girl With Closed Eyes' (1986–87) as well as Francis Bacon’s 'Triptych 1986–7', consigned by architect Norman Forster, sold for £38.5m.

    In Shanghai, where the show started, most of the energy surrounded ultra-contemporary names: Emmanuel Taku’s 'Ripped' (2021) sold for £194,672, more than eight times its estimate; 'Colors' (2020) by Edgar Plans sold to London for £524,142, more than double the artist’s previous record.

    Furthermore, Amoako Boafo confirmed his market appeal, with his 'Orange Shirt' fetching more than £876,000, far exceeding its high estimate of £594,265. The same painting had sold for $212,500 at Christie’s NY less than two years ago.


    A handful of Asian names performed solidly, above all Zao Wou-Ki, whose painting 'Le soir à l’Hôtel du Palais' ('Palace Hotel by night', 2014) sold for almost £2.9m, to a phone bidder in Hong Kong.

    After Shanghai, it was London’s turn.

    Certain works saw active bidding from the Shanghai and Hong Kong salesrooms, such as Peter Doig’s 'Some Houses on Iron Hill' (1992), which carried an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000 and eventually went to a New York collector for £2.4m. A phone bidder from the Shanghai office won Wassily Kandinsky’s 'Dumpfes Rot' (1927) for £2.2m.

    As proof of a new market shift, works by Hirst, Hodgkin, Chagall as well as Renoir struggled to sell right below or on the lower end of their own estimates. By contrast, works by Victor Man, Angel Otero, and Flora Yuknovich sold for multiples of their estimates. Flora’s performance in particular was significantly impressive: her painting, a twist on Fragonard, fetched £1.9m, more than five times its upper estimate.

    To conclude, all 22 works featured in the Surrealist segment sold. René Magritte’s 'La lumière du pôle' (1926–27) sold for £6.2m, whereas Pablo Picasso’s 'La fenêtre ouverte' (1929) stood out with its final price of £16.3m.


    Author: The Editor |Date: March 10, 2022