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Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary sale in London nets a tepid £83.6m and prompts question—is the summer auction season over?

There have been more auspicious starts to London’s summer auction week than this one, which began tonight (25 June) with Sotheby’s Modern and contemporary evening sale and will conclude on Thursday (28 June) with Phillips’s equivalent auction. Christie’s decision to refrain from holding a June evening sale of art in London this year underscores the season’s waning relevance in the global auction calendar, as the summer has become increasingly overshadowed by the larger London sales staged in March and October, as well as the mammoth spring auctions held in New York in May.

These are also the first evening sales since news broke of imminent layoffs at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which come amid crunch time for the top end of the market. Everything to play for, then, but not much to play with.

Across 52 lots, the evening drew a hammer total of £71.8m (£83.6m with fees), against a pre-sale estimate range of £76.4m to £108.1m (calculated without fees). Last year’s equivalent sale netted a considerably larger £190.3m (with fees), although nearly half this total came from the record-breaking, £85.3m sale of Gustav Klimt’s 1917 portrait Dame mit Fächer (lady with fan). Tonight’s results also fell short of Sotheby’s London evening sale in March, which made £99.7m (with fees). No artist’s records were achieved this time out.

Three lots were withdrawn, all by women artists: one each from Loie Hollowell, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Tamara de Lepicka—the last of which carried a £6m to £8m estimate, the sale’s third-most expensive. Around half of tonight’s lots carried a financial guarantee from Sotheby’s, and around 30% were backed by third-party irrevocable bids, a sign of the market’s enduring skittishness. (For comparison, 33% of the lots in Sotheby’s equivalent sale in 2022 were guaranteed).

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (1982)

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The clearest market prognosis could be derived from the evening’s top lot, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s triptych Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict (1982)—one of only two works that carried an eight-figure estimate. It last came to the block in May 2022, at a Christie’s sale in New York, where it was offered with an unpublished estimate of $30m (around £23.6m) and withdrawn before the sale began. Offered tonight with a target range of between £15m and £20m, this less aggressive estimate, adjusted for a more judicious buying pool, helped the painting find a new home. It hammered for £15m (£16m with fees) after less than a minute of bidding, to a buyer on the phone with Grégoire Billaut, Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art.

The sale began with Oliver Barker, the chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, taking the rostrum to oversee the offering of 16 works from the collection of the late finance executive Ralph I. Goldenberg, whose trove of chic minimalism and understated Abstract Expressionism met a warm reception. First out of the gate, Alexander Calder’s 1955 sculpture Animal Negro quickly vaulted past its £200,000 high estimate to hammer for £290,000 (£348,000 with fees).

Straight after, a sparse 2001 composition by Agnes Martin fetched £620,000 (£744,000 with fees) against its £600,000 high estimate. The same bidder who won the Martin then picked up an almost equally understated Cy Twombly drawing (est £1.2m to £1.8m) for £2m (£2.5m with fees). The majority of the other works from the Goldenberg collection matched or exceeded their high estimates, with household names like Lucio Fontana and Alberto Giacometti eliciting deep bidding and punchy prices.

Agnes Martin’s Untitled (2001)

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Not every lot from the Goldenberg collection soared, however. Robert Ryman’s 1965 Unfinished Painting, a blank white canvas that will be included in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné, passed against an estimate range of £1.5m to £2m; another 1965 work by Ryman hammered well below its £700,000 low estimate, at £450,000 (£540,000 with fees), presumably to its third-party guarantor.

“We will learn a lesson from this,” said Sotheby’s deputy chairman of contemporary art Michael Macaulay, after the sale had concluded. “Nonetheless, I don’t think this marks some radical readjustment of Ryman’s market.”

Second half slippage

Once Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and Modern, Helena Newman, took over for the second leg, the sale hit rockier ground.

Picasso’s ​​Guitare sur un tapis rouge (1922), which carried the evening’s second highest target range at £10m to £15m, hammered for just £9.4m (£10.7m with fees). Following this, a slew of lots hammered well beneath their low estimates, including a Mark Grotjahn canvas for £440,0000 (around £668,000 with fees) against an £800,000 low expectation and Gustave Caillebotte’s 1884 cliffscape La Villa Rose, Trouville for £550,000 (£660,000 with fees) against a £1.2m low estimate. Works passed in this leg include a Degas horse sculpture and the 1997-98 Chris Ofili painting Trump.

August Strindberg’s Solitary Fly Cap (1892-93)

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Even some artists not often seen at auction, due to their relatively scarcity on the open market, failed to drum up great excitement. A “very rare” August Strindberg painting, Solitary Fly Cap (1892-93) that had not been sold at auction for 24 years, went for a final bid less than its £2.5m estimate, bringing £2.9m with fees. Similarly, Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Landscape, view from Lejre (1905) went to a single bid in the room, making a premium-inclusive £660,000.

Despite the slippage in year-on-year sales totals, Newman and Macaulay are adamant that London’s June auction season is here to stay. “We are tremendously thrilled with the sale, which achieved a 93% sell through rate,” they say. “Tonight was down on March’s sale, but the market is evolving. This evening was an entirely worthwhile exercise and demonstrably proves that London can have three auction seasons a year.”

Moreover, Newman says, “We want to be present while an international collector base is in London for ‘the season'”. Indeed, one cannot deny the enduring pull of the global jet set descending on London in June, for a month of museum galas and high-profile social events including Ascot and Wimbledon.

“Not to mention Taylor Swift,” Macaulay adds in jocular fashion, referring to the megawatt musician’s sellout “Eras” tour taking place in London this week. Perhaps auction houses could take a leaf from Swift’s ability to captivate audiences with a show—her tour has drawn more than $1bn in sales. Judging by the thinning crowd in the salesroom tonight, however, producing similar sparks will take more than a competitively priced Basquiat.

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