Sotheby’s London Auction Week June 2024: Successes and Shortfalls

Lucio Fontana | Concetto Spaziale, Attese
Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1966). Source: Sotheby's

Before Sotheby’s auction week in London, there were concerns due to the stuttering UK economy, an impending election, and a cooling art market. Despite the hot, humid weather, the auction saw several lots surpass their low estimates, thanks to auctioneers. Overall, 90% of the lots were sold, mirroring the recent Sotheby’s New York sales.

The evening auction featured 52 lots and achieved a hammer total of £71.8 million (£83.6 million with fees), falling short of the pre-sale estimate of £76.4 million to £108.1 million (excluding fees). This was significantly lower than last year’s sale, which reached £190.3 million (with fees), due in large part to the £85.3 million sale of Gustav Klimt’s “Dame mit Fächer.” It also fell short of Sotheby’s London evening sale in March, which made £99.7 million (with fees). No artist records were set this time.

The highlight was a Basquiat triptych that fetched $20.2 million, making it the top lot of the evening. However, three artworks by Tamara de Lempicka, Loie Hollowell, and Emily Kam Kngwarray were removed from the auction, and five others, including an untitled piece from 1958 by Robert Rauschenberg, did not meet their reserve prices and were not sold.

Cy Twombly’s Formian Dreams + Actuality (1983) sold for $3.11 million, doubling its estimate, while By the Ionian Sea (1988) fetched $2.73 million, nearly twice its high estimate of $1.5 million. Lucio Fontana’s “Concetto spaziale, Attese” sold for $4.3 million, and Zdeněk Sýkora’s “Linie Nr.94” sold for $950,000.

The auction of 16 works from Ralph I. Goldenberg’s collection went well. Alexander Calder’s 1955 sculpture “Animal Negro” exceeded its £200,000 estimate, hammering at £290,000 (£348,000 with fees). The collection’s chic minimalism and understated Abstract Expressionism were well-received.

Robert Ryman’s 1965 Unfinished Painting, expected to fetch £1.5 million to £2 million, did not sell, and another work by Ryman sold below its estimate at £450,000 (£540,000 with fees), possibly to a guarantor.

During the auction’s second leg, significant challenges arose. Notably, Picasso’s Guitare sur un tapis rouge (1922), initially valued between £10m to £15m, sold for £9.4m (£10.7m with fees), below expectations. Other lots, such as a Mark Grotjahn canvas and Gustave Caillebotte’s La Villa Rose, Trouville, also sold well below their estimated values. Several works, including a Degas sculpture and a Chris Ofili painting titled Trump, did not meet their reserve prices and were not sold.

Despite a softer market and a tilt toward Asia, London’s status in the art market remains strong. With global participation from 35 countries at a recent event and a $100 million sale, London proves its resilience. Galleries note that while the market is selective, there’s still a strong appetite for high-quality contemporary art. Dealers focusing on emerging artists also see strength in their sector.

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