Sotheby’s Evening Auction was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so instead, they hosted an online “multi-camera global livestream” for a seventy-four-lot auction of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art.
The new format featured auctioneer Oliver Barker taking seven-figure bids in an empty control room in London where he faced a screen showing his colleagues wielding phone calls from London, Hong Kong, New York as well as online. The auction ran for almost five hours, during which, more than eight artists’ records were set and five artworks sold for more than $10 million, reported Scott Reyburn of The New York Times. “This is what we like: the ping-pong between New York and Hong Kong,” said Barker. “We see them on the split screens in perfect clarity.” “Sales are down across the board, but there’s an incredible amount of wealth chasing the rarest of the rarest,” explained New York-based art adviser, Wendy Cromwell. “There’s so much pent-up demand.” While owners were reluctant to sell high-value artworks online or other digital platforms during the pandemic, Sotheby’s was fortunate to have had secured three major consignments before lockdowns were imposed. However, as lockdowns were easing, collectors and agents were allowed to view works in person by appointments in New York, Hong Kong, and New York.
Francis Bacon’s imposing work Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus of 1981 had been exhibited since 1993 at a private museum in Oslo, the Astrup Fearnley Museet, which had been trying to sell the artwork privately for more than $100 million. But a telephone bidder at the Sotheby’s auction procured it for $84.6 million making it the artist’s third-highest price achieved at an auction. On the other hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 artwork sold for $15.2 million to an online bidder – a record for the artist as well as the highest ever price by an online bidder at an auction. “As a result of this sale we may see much more confident online bidding at a higher level than we’ve seen before,” explained Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based advisory firm, the Fine Art Group. “There used to be a ceiling of a few hundred thousand on internet bids”, he added.
While high-quality Impressionist paintings and modern pieces were few and far between, a private collection of Latin American Surrealist paintings had sparked competition, of which Harmony (Suggestive Self-Portrait) by Remedios Varo from 1956 sold at $6.2 million. This set a new record for the Spanish-Mexican artist alongside highlighting women’s contributions to the Surrealist movement. The evening witnessed a consistent theme of the demand for artworks of underappreciated female artists. Eighteen works from Denver-based dealer and collector Ginny Williams grossed $65.5 million, with a new auction high for Helen Frankenthaler, whose 1975 abstract Royal Fireworks was sold to a telephone bidder for $7.9 million.
While the sale prices on the artworks of female artists were higher than estimated values (like Frankenthaler’s Royal Fireworks), artworks of male artists saw more measured biddings – Clyfford Still’s 1947 abstract, PH-144 (1947-Y-No. 1) from the Californian collectors, Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, sold at $28.7 million which was well within its initial estimate.
The final total of the online sale was a reported $363.2 million, just more than half of last year’s $692 million, so while it might seem like “the art market has a good immune system” (according to New York-based art adviser, Mary Hoeveler), it may take a while to recover entirely.
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