New York’s major spring auctions are still two months away, but a successful series of sales that just concluded in London suggests that collectors know what they want: More.
Snapping up jewel-tone modern paintings, wiry sculptures and recently completed works, bidders went on a shopping spree, buying more than $1 billion worth of impressionist, modern and contemporary art all told from Sotheby’s , Christie’s and Phillips in London. That’s up 27% from a similar round of sales a year ago and a sign that collector confidence could continue to build leading up to the traditionally more important auctions in New York in May, dealers said.
Christie’s led the latest round, selling $475 million in art and besting Sotheby’s $430 million total. Boutique house Phillips surged with a $135 million evening sale Thursday that eclipsed its $18 million one the year before.
Pablo Picasso was the reigning champion across all three houses, boosted in part by an anonymous bidder or consortium who spent more than $155 million on at least 13 pieces by the artist at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The winning bids for the Picassos were all fielded by Gurr Johns, an art advisory firm with offices in the U.S., India and England. Gurr Johns’s singular efforts were reported earlier by art industry newsletter Baer Faxt.
At Sotheby’s, the Picasso trove included a portrait of one of his mistresses from 1937, “Woman in Beret and Checkered Dress (Marie-Thérèse Walter),” which sold for $69.2 million. Gurr Johns also claimed the top lot at Christie’s impressionist and modern art sale, Picasso’s “Musketeer and Sitting Nude” from 1967, which fetched $19.2 million. It isn’t clear who bought the artist’s 1932 “Sleeper” portrait of Ms. Walter at Phillips. The purchaser paid $57.8 million, doubling its high estimate.
Records were broken for several artists this time around, including Umberto Boccioni, Peter Halley, Yinka Shonibare, and Mark Bradford, whose 2007 abstract “Helter Skelter I,” was sold by tennis player John McEnroe through Phillips for $12 million, passing its $11 million high estimate.
In another sign of market momentum, collectors turned out for the houses’ daytime sales of lower-priced works, with Sotheby’s selling 85% of its offerings in its $32 million day sale of contemporary art last week and Christie’s selling 92% of its works in a similar day sale that also totaled around $32 million.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the London sales.
François-Xavier Lalanne: After the 2009 estate sale of designer Yves Saint Laurent put this French sculptor on the radar of today’s new collectors, Mr. Lalanne’s whimsical, animal-shape pieces have skyrocketed. Christie’s sold his 2006 desk designed like a wild sheep and titled “Pauline’s Large Mountain Sheep,” for $2 million, over its $827,952 high estimate.
Lynn Chadwick: The British sculptor is known for his series of walking figures whose clothes, though cast in bronze, appear to be flying in the wind—and now, so are his prices. Sotheby’s sold his sculpture, “Pair of Walking Figures—Jubilee 1977,” for $3.5 million, tripling its high estimate.
Christopher Wool: This conceptual artist’s auction performance has been volatile in recent years, with collectors paying more for his early, word-play paintings than his later abstracts. But there are signs his market is starting to stabilize, and Sotheby’s sold an untitled, 2007 abstract for $14.5 million, over its $8.6 million high estimate.
Adrian Ghenie: The Romanian painter has been a market darling for several years running, with one of his moody interiors, “Nickelodeon,” selling for $9 million two years ago. Yet when Christie’s recently offered his gruesome portrait of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, 2011’s “Study for ‘The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute,’” no one initially bid on the work, which had been expected to sell for at least $551,000. In a rare move, the auction house decided to offer up the work again later in the same sale, and one bidder stepped up and won it for $674,435. Two nights after that, Phillips sold another work by Mr. Ghenie, “Found,” for $343,600 following a single bid as well.
David Hockney: A traveling retrospective of the British painter’s colorful work on view recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art could have led to a bump in his auction prices, but collectors may have seen enough for now. Sotheby’s failed to sell Mr. Hockney’s watery diagram from 1965, “Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool, Santa Monica.” It had been priced to sell for at least $8.3 million.