Magritte sets record with $79.7 million sale at Sotheby’s

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One of Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Empire of Light’ paintings sold on Wednesday for £59.4 million with fees, or about $79.7 million, nearly three times the high auction price for a work by the Belgian surrealist artist. Certain to fetch at least $60 million thanks to a guaranteed minimum price financed by Sotheby’s, the 1961 painting was solicited by three bidders, all represented by Sotheby’s specialists by telephone in London.

The painting, “The Empire of Lights,” which juxtaposes a nighttime lamplit street with a serene daylit sky, is one of the most famous and enigmatic images in 20th-century art. Magritte painted no less than 17 canvases on the theme of day and night from 1948.

The Sotheby’s variant, one of the most recent and largest, was made for Anne-Marie Gillion Crowet, the daughter of Magritte’s friend, patron and chess opponent, Pierre Crowet. It had remained in the same family collection ever since.

“Over the years, many versions have been sold and they have done extremely well,” said Melanie Clore, co-founder of London-based art consultancy Clore Wyndham.

She said that in terms of composition, scale and condition, this 1961 work was “one of the most desirable Magritte paintings to come to auction”.

In 2011, while Clore was working as a specialist in impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, his department auctioned off a 1953 version for $3.8 million, although at the time it was not among the highest prices obtained for the artist.

The Magritte was the obvious lot in London’s spring auction series this week, dedicated to big-ticket Impressionist, modern and contemporary art. But high-end sales like these at the European headquarters of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’s aren’t what they once were.

With Britain’s economy weakened by Brexit and China a more powerful force in the global art market, London was the third best-selling auction center in 2021, behind New York and Hong Kong, according to Pi-eX , a London-based company that analyzes international auctions.

London’s hybrid live and online “evening” sales now take place in the afternoon, straddling the world’s time zones, and Impressionist and contemporary artworks are no longer auctioned days different. Bonnard is confused with Basquiat and Banksy.

“It’s a new world,” said Parisian dealer Christian Ogier, who regularly attends these London auctions. “Blending modern and contemporary is understandable. Why not? I do not stop at any category.

But London, with its huge concentrations of international wealth, including Kremlin-linked Russian oligarchs (which the UK government is now trying to restrict and regulate), continues to be a magnet for trophy buyers and sellers. of renowned art.

In addition to the Magritte, the Sotheby’s sale also included a Monet “Nymphéas”, or water lily canvas, painted in 1914-17, which had not been seen at auction since 1978. Entering a Japanese collection, it fetched 31 .2 million, again bought by a telephone bidder.

On Tuesday evening, Christie’s offered ‘The Foxes’, a fresh-from-the-market masterpiece by German expressionist painter Franz Marc, to headline its spring sales in London.

Recently returned to the heirs of Berlin collectors Kurt and Else Grawi, “The Foxes” (1913) is one of Marc’s most powerful Cubist-influenced animal studies. (The artist admired them more than humans.)

Guaranteed for at least $47 million, it was pushed by three telephone bidders to $57.2 million, the highest price at Christie’s sale and a record for the artist at auction.

Francis Bacon’s seemingly impressive “Triptych 1986-7” has been similarly estimated and guaranteed. But Bacon’s later paintings are much less sought after than his earlier works, and the work fell to a single auction of $51.6 million, the ninth-highest auction price for the significant artist.

Around 90% of Christie’s lots found buyers, but Banksy’s ‘Happy Choppers’, a tongue-in-cheek stencil painting of helicopter gunships sporting Minnie Mouse bows, failed to sell against a low estimate of 4 million of dollars.

Tuesday night sales at Christie’s brought in $298 million; the Wednesday night modern and contemporary works auction at Sotheby’s, preceded by “The Now,” brought in $297.2 million. This combined total of $595 million was 39 percent less than the $971 million made at the equivalent sales in London in February 2014, when art sales were at a high, according to Pi-eX.

The paintings of young market favorites attracted the most intense competition. Following a lethargic 90-minute sale of 20 contemporary works broadcast live from Shanghai to inaugurate the company’s new offices and galleries in mainland China, Christie’s has launched its main ’20/21′ sale featuring works by Jade Fadojutimi, Shara Hughes , Amoako Boafo and Flora Ioukhnovitch. “You’re Gonna Make Me Blush,” a 2017 painting by Yukhnovich inspired by Fragonard’s “The Swing,” fetched $2.6 million from a low estimate of $340,000.

The same names shone at Sotheby’s ‘The Now’ sale of 21 lots of works by hot contemporary artists. Shara Hughes’ 2019 psychedelic floral painting ‘The Naked Lady’ sold for a record $2.7 million, and a 2020 work by Yukhnovich, ‘Warm, Wet N’ Wild’, soared to 3 .6 million, establishing a highly sought-after auction. British artist. It had been estimated that it would sell for $200,000.

Last year, works by artists under 40 fetched a record $450 million at auction. This represented a 275% increase from 2020, with 8,952 works in the category on offer, also a record, according to Artprice, a France-based company that tracks results from international auction houses.

“It’s dangerous,” said Samuel Selby, 21, a London-based contemporary coin collector. “I worry about how auction houses take works by young artists and sell them for ridiculous prices.”

“It will be difficult to sustain in the long term,” added Selby.

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