Art Buyers Brush off Brexit as Pound’s Decline Fuels Bidding

  • Contemporary evening auction tallies $69 million, above target
  • Result represents 60% decline from 2015 as fewer works offered

Asian and American collectors went art shopping at Sotheby’s on Tuesday, taking advantage of the drop in sterling after Britain voted to exit the European Union last week.

Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian’s Long Museum fought to win a monumental Jenny Saville painting of naked female bodies stacked like sardines, outbidding four competitors including American art dealer Larry Gagosian. The work was the top lot of the boisterous evening sale that tallied 52.2 million pounds ($69.4 million), surpassing the high estimate. Forty of the 46 offered lots sold.

Jenny Saville’s nudes painting.
Jenny Saville’s nudes painting.
Source: Sotheby’s

“It’s good to see some British exports are still desirable,” auctioneer Oliver Barker quipped when bidding for the work reached 4.6 million pounds, well over the high presale estimate of 2 million pounds. The final price for Saville’s “Shift,” which is almost 11 feet wide by 11 feet tall, was 6.8 million pounds, an auction record for the provocative U.K. painter. The work, which was part of the 1997 show “Sensation: Young British Artists,” will be in the exhibition “She” at the Shanghai museum next month, Sotheby’s said.

While the atmosphere was upbeat and many works were chased by multiple bidders, the tally for the sale represented a 60 percent decline from the similar event a year ago, when far more lots were offered. The art market has contracted in 2016 as political and economic volatility unnerves sellers.

“It was a hard sale to put together and the referendum didn’t make things easier,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said afterward. The results proved that “passion for art collecting overrides broader concerns,” he added.

Markets Rebound

Earlier on Tuesday, stocks, the pound and commodities all climbed for the first time since Britain’s surprise vote to leave the EU on June 23.

“Brexit might be a good thing for the art market,” said Helly Nahmad, a New York art dealer. “When the stock market is uncertain and volatile and bond yields are negative or extremely low, art is a great alternative investment. It’s like a safe haven.”

The auction started with frenzied bidding for Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Nets” painting, propelling it to 677,000 pounds, more than twice the high estimate. Jean Dubuffet’s orange man in a Napoleon hat went for 1.3 million pounds, almost four times the projection. Sale prices includes buyer’s premiums; presale estimates don’t.

Keith Haring’s "The Last Rainforest"
Keith Haring’s "The Last Rainforest"
Source: Sotheby’s

Keith Haring’s densely painted red, yellow and black “The Last Rainforest” fetched 4.2 million pounds, setting a record for the Pop artist. It was bought by a client of Amy Cappellazzo, co-chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division.

Adrian Ghenie, the trendy artist whose expressionistic style blends figuration and abstraction, was sought after by Asian and Western collectors.

Seven bidders chased Ghenie’s “The Hunted,” a large 2010 canvas with a central baboon figure, pushing the price to 1.9 million pounds, more than three times the high estimate. A smaller work, “Self Portrait as a Monkey” from 2011, fetched 665,000 pounds, more than three times the top target.

Red Fish

Only one collector pursued Rudolf Stingel’s untitled canvas inspired by an oriental rug. The piece, whose price of 1.7 million pounds was within the estimated range, is one of five Stingels on the auction block this week in London.

Adrian Ghenie’s "The Hunted".
Adrian Ghenie’s "The Hunted".
Source: Sotheby’s

There wasn’t much action for Sigmar Polke’s 1992 abstract work “Roter Fisch (Red Fish).” Sotheby’s found a buyer willing to place an irrevocable bid prior to the sale and lowered the reserve. The final price was 3.1 million pounds, below the low target of 3.5 million pounds. The bid was executed by Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.

“Its scale is prohibitive to many people,” Branczik said of painting that’s 10 feet tall by 13 feet wide. “It went to a great collection.”

Jen Hua, Sotheby’s Beijing-based specialist bidding on behalf of the Long Museum, also won Neo Rauch’s large painting “Gut Gut” for 869,000 pounds, above the upper estimate. Hua also chased works by Ghenie and Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi but lost out.

Works that didn’t sell included sculptures by Lucio Fontana and Ai Weiwei.

“These were great results at the best of times,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser. “Currency obviously played a role today because so many bidders were Asian and American. It’s a 10 percent discount for them at least.”

Sotheby’s rose 2.2 percent to $27.43 a share at 12:11 p.m. in New York.

The company will offer a tennis ball-sized rough diamond on Wednesday in London. The 1,109-carat gem is estimated at more than $70 million. 

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