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Must-see shows in and around Maastricht during Tefaf
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Revisiting Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Los Angeles breakthroughs
March 6, 2024
Must-see shows in and around Maastricht during Tefaf
March 6, 2024

Although Frieze Los Angeles shined some California sunlight onto the art market last week, conditions were somewhat gloomier in London tonight (6 March), as the Modern and contemporary evening sale at Sotheby’s—the first major auction of the year—did little to dispel the trade’s enduring sense of wariness.

The 60 lots to cross the block achieved £82.2m (£99.7m with fees)—within the revised estimate of £74.8m to £106.5m but considerably down from the £136.9m (£172.6m with fees) the auction house made from its equivalent evening sale in London last March. (Estimates, like hammer prices, exclude fees.)

Spread over a brisk two hours, tonight’s auction was a staid though not disastrous affair. Sotheby’s effectively pre-sold 21 lots (around one-third of the sale) via guarantees—almost all made by third parties. Some consignors are evidently still cautious: 10 lots, or 14% of the 70 works originally marketed in the auction, were ultimately withdrawn, including the evening’s second-highest offering, a Blue Period Picasso portrait expected to sell for between £5m and £7m, and a Josef Albers painting (est £800,000 to £1m) removed about one hour into the proceedings.

The sell-through rate on the evening was a respectable 90% by lot (though that figure declines to 77% if the withdrawals are counted as passed lots). Six of the works that were actually offered failed to sell, including Marc Chagall’s La ferme, la village (1954-62), which carried an estimate of £1.5m to £2m.

The night’s star lot was another Picasso. Sotheby’s press department described Homme à la pipe (1968), painted when the artist was aged 87, as depicting a “swashbuckling musketeer-matador”. It had until this evening never been seen at auction. Carrying an £8m to £12m estimate, the work prompted the sale’s longest bidding battle—a four-minute tussle between three bidders on the phone and one in the room. The painting eventually went to a phone bidder via Caroline Lang, the chairman of Sotheby’s Switzerland, on a final bid of £11.7m (£13.7m with fees).

Pablo Picasso, Homme à la pipe (1968).

When she took the rostrum, Sotheby’s Europe chairman, Helena Newman, reminded the room that this year also marks 150 years since the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris. That the evening lacked a dedicated section to the once-dominant sales category suggests how dramatically its fortunes have turned of late (though the auction’s coinciding with the opening of Tefaf Maastricht has likely also split the attention of key consignors, collectors and dealers). Plus, as Newman rightly said after the auction, “Many of these paintings are hanging in the Musée d’Orsay. You can wait a generation for the right one”.

Only two of tonight’s eight Impressionist works made around their high estimate: Monet’s Arbres au bord de l’eau, printemps à Giverny (1885) and a luminous 1906 painting by Paul Signac of a Saint-Tropez bay, both of which hammered at £6.5m (£7.7m with fees) against identical £7m high estimates; an Alfred Sisley landscape (est £700,000 to £1m) passed.

Refreshingly, The Now section, which Sotheby’s typically arranges to frontload its major multi-part sales with auction records for newer names, began not with a fresh-out-of-grad-school artist but rather with one in her 70s. Takako Yamaguchi is having a revival, thanks to a well-received solo show at Ortuzar Projects in New York last year and her forthcoming inclusion in the 2024 Whitney Biennial. Her momentum will no doubt be strengthened by her new high mark under the hammer, achieved tonight by the spellbinding 1994 painting Catherine and Midnight, which made £700,000 (£889,000 with fees), well above its £600,000 high target. This was followed by another auction record, as Victor Man’s The Chandler (2013) quadrupled its strategically conservative £80,000 high estimate to make £320,000 (£406,400 with fees).

Takako Yamaguchi’s Catherine and Midnight (1992) made the artist’s record, at £889,000 (with fees)

Fittingly, the excitement halted upon the arrival of a Thomas Schütte sculpture of a figure literally stuck in the mud. Hammering at £240,000, below its £250,000 low estimate, the work was followed by Nicole Eisenman’s 2007 canvas Biergarten, which swiftly became the evening’s first pass against a £500,000 to £700,000 expectation.

It took three more lots before the sale got free of the quagmire courtesy of Etel Adnan’s untitled (around 1970), a prime example of the colourful and collage-like painting for which she is best known. It attracted four bidders and made a record £350,000 (£444,500 with fees) for the Lebanese-American poet and artist, who died in 2021.

Another work by a female artist brought another jolt of energy to the room. Françoise Gilot’s beguiling Portrait de Geneviève avec un collier de colombes (1944) was gifted by the artist to the media mogul Arianna Huffington, from whose collection it was being sold. Garnering some of the night’s deepest and most competitive bidding, the painting nearly tripled its £200,000 high estimate to hammer at £570,000 (£723,900 with fees).

Françoise Gilot’s Portrait de Geneviève avec un collier de colombes (1944)

Immediately following this propulsive result was a sculpture of Gilot by her former lover Pablo Picasso. That his Tête de femme (1951) performed comparatively unremarkably—ultimately crawling up to its £2.5m low estimate (and reaching almost £3.1m with fees)—might be a symptom of the larger shift in taste away from depictions of women and toward depictions by women.

It is also a sign of the times that Sotheby’s top lot tonight (Picasso’s earlier-mentioned Homme à la pipe) carried a high estimate barely in the eight figures, especially considering that Christie’s will lead its London evening sale tomorrow with a Magritte carrying a £50m high expectation. Newman admirably framed this fact as a positive after the sale. She defined tonight’s auction as “less reliant on trophy lots” and therefore more “consistent” and “evenly spread out”—though this also made it a “lot-by-lot” affair. She added that many of the works on offer had either never before gone under the hammer or represented their makers’ evening sale debuts.

In the auction’s closing minutes, a last-minute burst of energy landed some of the evening’s best prices, including René Magritte’s Composition on a sea shore (1935-36), which was exhibited at the Tate Liverpool’s 2011 retrospective of the artist. The painting hammered above its £2.5m high estimate, making £2.8m (£3.4m with fees).

Still, the sale’s strong ending could not offset what amounts to a 40% reduction on the total achieved in Sotheby’s equivalent auction last March. We will see if Christie’s and Phillips can do better to clear the clouds still lingering over the market from 2023.

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