London Summer 2017 Auction Season exclusive insights by Enrico Cavaliere
It was frenzy weeks as usual, marked by stellar prices and numerous records, the ones which have just sealed the auction Summer season in London this June/July. Collectors, art aficionados and curious passers-by had the chance to admire an impressive series of fabulous art pieces – in some cases, real masterpieces – which in the end did not disappoint anyone, particularly in financial terms. In case it had gone unnoticed so far, these recent results have demonstrated once more how polarised towards the very high end the art market is right now (and will probably continue to do so in the foreseeable future): in other words, the rare and the expensive always sells…
It all started with Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on June, the 21st, when art worth more than £127m in total went down the hammer quite rapidly. Undoubtedly, the superstar of the night was Wassily Kandinsky, with two stunning auction records collected in the space of six lots: first it was Murnau – Landschaft mit grünen Haus, which fetched £21m (with fees), but then an even more remarkable result was achieved when Bild mit weissen Linien (see above), one the master’s early abstract paintings dating back to 1913, climbed to the impressive £33m (including fees) after a prolonged bidding battle. It was the London-based advisory firm Beaumont & Nathan who managed to adjudicate the lot, on behalf of a UK private collector.
The picture paid much of its importance to the fact that it was painted at a key moment in Kandinsky’s career, when the artist was able to reach a pure, lyrical abstract form after several years of experimentations and hard efforts. 1913 therefore represented a milestone within his whole production – particularly in terms of what would be followed – and the present canvas perfectly epitomises this.
A few days later it was Christie’s turn: their Impressionist/Modern Art Evening Auction packed an overall £149m (also with fees) and confirmed the increasing appetite coming from Asian clients for this market segment (20% of works offered in fact found new homes in the Far-East).
In this case, the leading work was Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel, which overshadowed the names of other giants included in the sale, such as Picasso and Van Gogh. Painted in 1937-38 and coming from a US collection, it achieved £36m (fees included) – which now represents the new world auction record for the artist – and was sold to the notorious dealer Larry Gagosian (who was in the room and was presumably bidding for a client).
Beckmann completed this powerful work while he was on exile in Amsterdam and then Paris and conceived it as a sinister, dramatic allegory of the violence, oppression and terror erupting from the then dominating Nazi regime in Germany. Seen with today’s eyes, it scarily mirrors the terrible events which would shortly afterwards mark the years of WWII too.
With the pyrotechnic nights of Impressionist/Modern Art masters still fresh in our minds, the focus swiftly moved to Contemporary Art. Sotheby’s held their dedicated Evening Sale on June 28th (with no correspondent auction at Christie’s, following their decision to radically subvert their annual sale calendar).
And, surprise surprise, Warhol and his fellow Basquiat dominated the scene once more. This time round their pre-eminence was probably sharper than usual, also thanks to two outstanding works which were the result of the collaboration between the father of Pop Art and the then wild, brutal crusader of Neo-Expressionism, both coming from the prominent collection of fashion guru Tommy Hilfiger.
Sweet Pungent in particular caught our attention vividly (despite it not being the best-selling lot, gathering in total £4,4m – with fees). Conceived in 1983, it is a remarkable example of their complex, highly-interactive and mutually-stimulating relationship (nurtured by a strong friendship): Warhol started first by working on the background and enriching it with the gigantic reproduction of the General Electric logo, then Basquiat worked and re-worked on the medium by adding, amending, deleting with his peculiar frenetic, all-encompassing style.
As if it had not been enough, this massive cycle of high-profile auctions was eventually concluded by the Old Masters the following week. And it was rather reassuring seeing Christie’s and Sotheby’s putting together very solid sales and respectable, well-balanced catalogues, which had not been seen in London for a while. This was then confirmed by the data (high sell-through rates for the segment – 85% at Sotheby’s, 75% at Christie’s) as well as by the overall figures (£52m out of 70 lots with fees were raised at Sotheby’s, whereas Christie’s managed to reach £43m including fees but out of a smaller auction – 48 lots).
Everybody’s eyes were on the monumental Guardi (1.2 x 2.04m, signed, 1760s), The Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, which had stayed within the Guinness family collection since 1891 (the same owners had previously sold the pendant through Sotheby’s back in 2011). And the expectations were not disappointed: the painting in fact sold for the astonishing sum of £26.2 (with fees), following a fierce competition between two phone bidders – just slightly below the artist’s record, still with the pendant mentioned above (which went for £26.8m).
Equipped with impeccable provenance and an impressive exhibition history as well, this picture clearly represents one of the pinnacles of XVIII Century view painting and depicts the scene that would have greeted all the Grand Tour tourists entering Venice from the South.
Guardi shows here his wonderful ability to reproduce the flickering atmosphere of the city through his wise use of suffused, shimmering and increasingly thin layers of pigment. Several details, such as the building in the foreground on lower left, with its open window and the typical Venetian chimney, reveal his inexhaustible passion for characteristic yet delicate details.
The Old Master Drawings sales featured some amazing lots too, above all the superb work by Canaletto titled The Coronation of the Doge on the Scala dei Giganti. In the end, it was purchased for £2.6m – including fees – over the phone by a renowned specialised dealer.
Exquisite example of Canaletto’s sublime genius as draughtsman and very probably executed at a rather late phase within the artist’s career, it originally belonged to a series of ten drawings depicting the Feste Ducali, ceremonies and festivals of the Doges in XVIII Century Venice, which were produced to then be converted into prints (12, by fellow Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Brustoloni) as well as paintings (by Francesco Guardi).
The artist was used to create accurate compositions taken from specific locations, often following the request of his noble patrons, however images of actual historical events(such as this one, with the Doge being crowned) are rare.
Adding to the piece’s unique features, the fact that it had stayed within in the same, English prestigious aristocratic collection (the Hoare family) for over two centuries, changed ownership only three times since it was conceived and had not been offered at auction since 1883.
We believe the above is definitely enough for now…as always, we hope you very much enjoyed our review! After such a tourbillon, the art market now takes a well-deserved (as well as much-needed) break…it is finally time to strand on the Riviera beaches and enjoy the Summer, see you all in September!