The Royal Opera House’s David Hockney painting sells for £12.8m at Christie’s amid deaccessioning debate


David Hockney’s portrait of Sir David Webster, sold on behalf of the Royal Opera House.
Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

“The vocabulary of auctioning and the art market has changed radically,” Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen said after Christie’s 20th Century: London to Paris series of sales tonight, which fetched £ 90.2 million (with fees) on four sales. Around 60% of the evening’s bidders were Europeans, the rest was evenly distributed between the USA and Asia.

After the major art fairs Frieze and Fiac were canceled in Paris and London earlier this month, tonight was about creating “that energy between Paris and London”, according to Giovanna Bertazzoni, co-chair of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art division .

Speaking of energy: Pylkkänen and his Parisian co-auctioneer Cécile Verdier, head of Christie’s France, had something of the somewhat forced chemistry of the television news breakfast anchor when they handled the sale together. But they had cut out their work for them with the more ambitious lots. Ben Clark, Executive Vice President of Advisors at Gurr Johns International, says, “The results definitely show that the market is very price sensitive. Pushed estimates just don’t work in this environment, even for good works. ”

This fact was evident in the inconspicuous sale of the Parisian avant-garde in the amount of 15.5 million euros (18.9 million euros with fees), which was crowned by Pierre Soulages Peinture 162 x 130 cm, 9 July 1961. The painting scratched at 4.5 million euros (5.3 million euros with) fees, around 6 million euros – 8 million euros).

The most valuable part of the evening was the London-based evening auction for post-war and contemporary art, which was attended by eight bidders in the room. She brought in £ 41.2m (£ 49.2m with fees) on an estimate of £ 40.8m to £ 40 a 55.9m.

With the remoteness and lack of occasions caused by pandemics, marketing is becoming increasingly important in these increasingly sophisticated live streaming evening sales, according to Clark. “Psychologically, why should you bid big in these economic situations unless you are a real connoisseur with no cash problems,” he says. “Without commandments, it’s like a silent movie.”

But marketing and market are very different – perhaps different – things, with the smooth smoke and mirrors of the former saying very little about the mysterious latter, which becomes more and more opaque with distance.

Sometimes there is no better marketing in the art trade than a current exhibition. Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium was only closed on August 30th at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. A painting by German artist Daniel Richter that was featured in this exhibition – Tarifa (2001), which was bought by Victoria Miro the year it was painted – was stuck on lot one at Christie’s tonight. It was sold for £ 950,000 (£ 1.1m with fees), well above its estimate of £ 600,000 to £ 800,000.

“Without a command, it’s like a silent movie.”
Ben Clark, Gurr Johns International

“His works are very hard to come by and in great demand – he’s hot right now,” says Clark of Richter’s work. The painting was covered by a third party warranty.

Much of the evening passed much more slowly, however, with a handful of lively outbursts that the bidders saw some value in. For example with the Danish artist Per Kirkebys Die Zeit Nagt III (The Time Gnaws III), who had seven bidders and was sold to a Parisian buyer for £ 260,000 – twice as much as £ 100,000 to £ 150,000.

The most famous lot of the night was undoubtedly David Hockney’s portrait of Sir David Webster (1971), a painting by the former General Manager of the Royal Opera House (ROH), commissioned and paid for with donations from ROH staff, Webster’s retirement. The work was sold on the lower end of its estimate of £ 11 million (£ 12.8 million with fees), presumably to its third party guarantor.

The work has been in a Plexiglas box in the RAW since then, but the embattled organization decided to sell it to raise funds at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has been closing performing arts venues for months. “In the face of the greatest crisis in our history, the sale of David Hockney’s wonderful portrait of Sir David Webster is an integral part of our recovery strategy,” said Alex Beard, executive director of the Royal Opera House.

Katharine Arnold, Christie’s co-director of post-war and contemporary art in Europe, says ROH’s decision to “not just sell” and that “sensitive” conversations with Christie’s began in the summer. But Arnold says, “the main job of the Royal Opera House is to support the performing arts” rather than being a museum of fine arts.

With a lot of debates about deactivating works from museums with financial difficulties at the moment, Arnold says, the ROH’s decision has been made easier because the work is 100% owned by the institution, not the public, and “the beauty of the auction is in some ways the transparency of the market and the fact that a beautiful painting becomes visible ”. The fact that the work was guaranteed by a third party from the start also gave confidence to the ROH, says Arnold.

Interestingly, David Ross, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, became the new chairman of the ROH Board of Trustees in July and was reportedly involved in the decision to sell the Hockney portrait to raise funds. He is also the chairman of the National Portrait Gallery in London and an avid collector of Hockney’s work. Could he have bought it?


Lucian Freud’s untitled work sold for £ 982,500.
Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

A beautiful early ink drawing of a taxidermy owl in a case by Lucian Freud, Untitled (interior drawing, The Owl, 1945) will be familiar to anyone who has seen the now-closed Blain Southern show of early drawings by Freud in 2012 The exhibition took place in the present gallery of art and antique dealer Danny Katz on Hill Street in Mayfair. Katz sold the work at Christie’s tonight – he bought it from Sothebys for £ 517,250 (for a fee) in 2011. It sold on the lower end of an estimate of £ 800,000 to £ 1.2 million (or £ 982,500 with fees) thanks to entirely London-based telephone bids.

Elsewhere, Marina Abramovic’s much-touted mixed reality work entitled The Life (2018-2019) stalled a bit. This was the first mixed reality work put up for sale by Christie’s. The buyer will receive two headsets, a certificate of authenticity and instructions for use. Put on a headset and Abramovic will appear as a hologram in your living room (or wherever you are), performing a 19-minute piece in front of you – a meditation on mortality.

“People are starting to understand what virtual reality and mixed reality actually are and how they differ. We had a lot of public interest, ”says Katharine Arnold before the sale. “We started having conversations about work inclusion about a year and a half ago, but now that there’s a pandemic and social distancing, it seems more relevant.” However, buyers for such works generally remain “people who are more institutional or inclined – who know how to display such a work”.

Perhaps this still limited buyer base was shown in the end result – confidently valued at £ 400,000 to £ 800,000, the pre-sale reserve appears to have been lowered as it sells to Arnold’s telephone bidder at just £ 230,000 (£ 287,500 with fees) against little competition has been .


Peter Doig’s “Boiler House”, the top lot of the evening.
Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd 2020

Overall, the top lot of the sale was Peter Doig’s Boiler House, a rather chilling scene of an abandoned building in the woods from 1993, which was again sold for £ 11.9m (£ 13.8m with fees, approx . up to £ 18m) was sold to Arnold’s phone. The market for Doig’s work from the 1990s before his style change around 2002, when he and his family moved to Trinidad, is strong, says Arnold: “He really knows how to make color malleable. Although this work is part of Doig’s Le Corbusier-inspired Concrete Cabin series, it is closer to Swamped [the 1990 painting of a canoe which sold at Christie’s for $25.9m in 2015] in technique and composition. “

The evening’s four sales included just a handful of works by women artists (Abramovic and some in Paul Haim’s collection by Niki de Saint Phalle and Françoise Lacampagne) and in the post-sale press conference, Christie’s managing director Guillaume Cerutti said although the auction had House ” Made progress “by including more works by women in its evening sales. “There was still a lot to do.” He made an effort to point out the number of women Christie employees running sales tonight.

When asked if this was a challenge for the experienced auctioneer Pylkkänen, Cerutti said: “Jussi is neither a man nor a woman, he is an icon.” On this bomb, until next week’s sale in New York.

Results – Christie’s 20th Century: London to Paris sales streak on October 22nd

Paul Haim’s secret garden: £ 15.2m (£ 18.6m with fees, approx £ 9.9m – £ 15.2m)

Parisian avant-garde: £ 14m (£ 17.1m with fees, approximately £ 15.5m – £ 21.7m)

Evening auction for post-war and contemporary art: £ 41.2m (£ 49.2m with fees, approx £ 40.9m – £ 55.9m)

Think Italian: £ 4.2m (£ 5.3m with fees, approximately £ 9.7m – £ 14m)

Series total: £ 90.2m with fees. (Estimate £ 75.9m – £ 106.9m)

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