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Sotheby’s Makes the Best of a Thinner Summer Season

“It wasn’t the most exciting material, but they had a sale, there was strong interest and it was profitable,” he added. “Christie’s didn’t compete for the money that was out there.”


A triptych of 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat canvases, 8 feet high and combining areas of overpaint with the artist’s enigmatic texts and private imagery, sold for £6.5 million.

2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS; via Sotheby’s

About 70 percent of the Sotheby’s lots had never before been seen at auction, including a triptych of 1983 Jean-Michel Basquiat canvases, 8 feet high and combining areas of overpaint with the artist’s enigmatic texts and private imagery.

“It’s quite ‘street’ and doesn’t have a figure,” said Alexander Branczik, the Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. “It wouldn’t be most collectors’ first Basquiat.”

Basquiat is attracting more attention than ever at auction, after the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid $110.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in May for a 1982 painting of a skull.

“It doesn’t mean that every Basquiat is worth twice as much,” said Mr. Branczik, whose department had estimated the triptych in London at £4 million to £6 million before the New York sale, and maintained that valuation afterward. It was contested by four bidders Wednesday night and sold for £6.5 million.

The most expensive of the sale’s guaranteed lots was a 20-inch high Andy Warhol silk-screen on canvas, “Self-Portrait,” from 1963-64, derived from a strip of photo-booth images of the artist in sunglasses, valued at as much as £7 million. In pale blue, and one of nine single-panel paintings of the kind, it sold for £6 million, considerably less than the $11.4 million a version in red sold for in 2014. Like the vast majority of lots in the auction, the Warhol and the Basquiat sold to telephone bidders.

Lots lower down the price scale attracted healthy competition: A 1997-98 Damien Hirst medicine cabinet sculpture, “Eight Over Eight,” which the owner bought for £162,400 at a Sotheby’s auction of fittings from Mr. Hirst’s “Pharmacy” restaurant in 2004, sold for £728,750, compared with a low estimate of £400,000.

But the sale still didn’t attract any work valued at more than $9 million.

“The sales are thin,” said Christophe Van de Weghe, a dealer based in New York, adding that it had been a long year for the art world. “People are tired.”

The Sotheby’s auction was shortly after the Art Basel fair, where works from private collections were selling at higher prices. A 1982 Basquiat painting, “Three Delegates,” priced at $18 million on the booth of Acquavella Galleries of New York, was one of several confirmed sales over $10 million. Collectors’ increasing willingness to sell high-value “classic contemporary” works privately through dealers is also having an impact on auctions.

Meanwhile, Christie’s continues to do its own thing, auctioning 32 lots of Impressionist and modern art the night before the Sotheby’s contemporary sale.


A 1997-98 Damien Hirst medicine cabinet sculpture, “Eight Over Eight,” which the owner bought for £162,400 in 2004, sold for £728,750.

Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2017; via Sotheby’s

Christie’s offered Max Beckmann’s much-exhibited German Expressionist masterwork “Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell),” from 1937 to 1938, with a low estimate of £30 million.

Owned by a family trust associated with the New York dealer Richard Feigen, who bought the work in 1983 for $500,000 from the St. Louis collector Morton D. May, the vision of birds torturing a man, as Nazi-saluting witnesses watched, has long been recognized as one of Beckmann’s most powerful indictments of National Socialism.

But the toughness of German Expressionism can be a hard sell, particularly to Asian buyers. The work attracted little bidding, selling in the room to a buyer represented by the dealer Larry Gagosian for £36 million with fees.

The price was, however, more than twice the previous auction high for the artist.

Christie’s took £149.5 million on the night, slightly more than the low estimate. The total was cheekily bolstered by the £1.4 million bid for a 1964 Lucio Fontana and £965,000 achieved for a 1956 Jean-Paul Riopelle, pieces that would normally be included in an auction of postwar and contemporary works.

The only high-value lot to attract truly intensive competition was Van Gogh’s vivid 1889 painting “The Reaper.” This was the most admired of 10 studies the artist made while at an asylum in St.-Rémy de Provence, France, inspired by images of agricultural workers by Jean-François Millet. After a flurry of telephone bidding from Asia, the 17-inch high canvas sold to a client represented by David Kleiweg de Zwaan, a Christie’s New York-based specialist, for £24.2 million, almost double the low estimate.

Can this evolving mix of “Imps and mods” and contemporary auctions maintain London’s reputation as the art world’s last stop before the summer vacation?

Phillips would certainly think so, after the £24.4 million the auction house achieved at a Thursday night sale of 20th-century and contemporary art. The total was up 105 percent from June last year, and all but two of the 31 works sold. The highlight of the evening was a green “Freischwimmer #84” abstract by the German-born photographer Wolfgang Tillmans that soared to £605,000, an auction high for the artist.

The contemporary auction at Sotheby’s the previous night might not have had any eight-figure results, but there were plenty in the profitable range of $500,000 to $5 million, where fees are generally taken from both the seller and the purchaser. The Hirst cabinet alone netted Sotheby’s about $167,000 in buyer’s fees. Auction houses have to pay staff members over the summer months, and Sotheby’s lists 54 contemporary art specialists in London and New York.

“Currently, we have no intention of changing what we do in London,” said Mr. Branczik of Sotheby’s. “It’s an important time of year for us.”

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