• Casualties included unsold diamond and Freud, pulled Richter
  • Asian and American bidders snapped up works at auctions

London’s art market was whipsawed like the financial world during the two weeks of auctions surrounding Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union.

Uncertainty leading up to the June 23 referendum left some sellers hesitating to part with holdings. The political and economic volatility that followed voters’ shock decision, with the pound plunging the next day and Prime Minister David Cameron resigning, disrupted some sales but spurred more.

While a 14 million-pound ($18.7 million) Gerhard Richter painting was withdrawn last minute from Christie’s and the world’s largest rough diamond failed to sell at Sotheby’s this week, buyers from Asia and the U.S. generally engaged in frantic bidding, taking advantage of the currency discount to set records for many artists.

“It was a hell of a dramatic backdrop,” said Harry Blain, director of Blain Southern Gallery in London. “Yes, there have been some casualties, but overall it’s been a robust performance.”

Moore’s Record

Francis Bacon’s Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe
Francis Bacon’s Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe
Source: Christie’s

The two weeks of auctions began at Sotheby’s on June 21 where Pablo Picasso’s 1909 Cubist painting “Femme Assise” sold for 43.3 million pounds and Amedeo Modigliani’s “Jeanne Hebuterne (au Foulard)” took 38.5 million pounds, both works exceeding the targeted estimates. Prices include buyer’s fees; estimates don’t.

The final event of the auction cycle was Christie’s 250th anniversary sale on Thursday, spanning three centuries and tallying 99.5 million pounds, within the estimated range. It was led by Henry Moore’s curvaceous, monumental bronze that fetched 24.7 million pounds, exceeding the high presale estimate of 20 million pounds and setting an auction record for the British sculptor.

Held a week after the U.K. voted, the event shrugged off volatility, selling all but four of the 31 offered works. Two scheduled lots were withdrawn.

Titled “Defining British Art,” it was estimated at 95.7 million pounds to 138 million pounds, a significantly higher target than Christie’s two preceding evening sales of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art, combined.

Francis Bacon’s 1968 “Version No. 2 of Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe” drew two bidders and sold for 20.2 million pounds, as estimated. The work was being resold after 10 years; it had been purchased for $15 million in 2006 at Sotheby’s.

A 6-foot-wide landscape by John Constable sold for 14.1 million pounds, surpassing the estimate of 12 million pounds. Painted in 1821-1822, “View on the Stour near Dedham, full-scale sketch” depicts a river valley in Suffolk. Christie’s guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price and found a third-party guarantor to offset the risk.

Bids Withheld

John Constable’s View on the Stour near Dedham
John Constable’s View on the Stour near Dedham
Source: Christie’s

The evening’s big casualty was Lucian Freud’s “Ib and her Husband,” depicting a fully-clothed couple sleeping by a radiator. Estimated at 18 million pounds, the work didn’t draw a single bid. The consignor purchased it for $19.4 million in 2007, the peak of the previous art cycle, at Christie’s in New York.

“I’ve never liked that particular painting, and I think a lot of people share my view,” said Ivor Braka, a London-based art dealer, after the auction. Nearby, an elderly man was overheard giving an explanation: “Guys like nudes.”

Asian collectors were active at Christie’s, continuing the trend seen throughout the post-Brexit-week auctions. A client of Elaine Holt, a Hong Kong-based director of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, dropped 7.6 million pounds on two paintings by Frank Auerbach and one by Bridget Riley -- establishing records for both artists. A day earlier her client bought Johnny Depp’s Jean-Michel Basquiat painted door for 5.1 million pounds.

“Asian collectors are diversifying,” Holt said on Thursday after the auction.

Dollar Thinking

Sotheby’s has also seen its share of Asian buying. On June 28, 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. It was also a record for the artist.

While the volumes of sales diminished dramatically from a year ago, dealers and auction house executives highlighted the high percentage of sold lots at most auctions during the past two weeks at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, suggesting that there is plenty of demand for art consumption. And a weaker pound didn’t hurt either.

“We all think in dollars even though I am based here,” said Inigo Philbrick, a London-based art dealer. “A million dollars goes farther now.”

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