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Hockney Painting Makes a Medium-Size Splash at Sotheby’s

LONDON — David Hockney’s 1966 Pop Art masterwork “The Splash” sold on Tuesday night, much as expected, for 23.1 million pounds, or about $29.8 million, with fees, at a Sotheby’s auction of contemporary art overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The work, the star lot at the auction, is one of three painted versions of Mr. Hockney’s celebrated image of the spray thrown up by an unseen diver who has just plunged into the blue of a California swimming pool. The best-known of those images is the monumental 1967 canvas, “A Bigger Splash,” in the Tate collection in London.

This medium-size version, measuring 6 feet along each side, was being sold by the Chinese real estate billionaire Joseph Lau, according to Bloomberg News. (Sotheby’s declined to comment on the seller’s identity.) The painting was acquired in 2006 for £2.9 million, or about $5.4 million at the time, at the same London salesroom.

The Hockney sold to a single telephone bid. It was the third-highest auction price yet achieved for one of the painter’s works, but it was still well behind the $90.3 million bid for “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” in 2018.

“The Hockney was a bit disappointing as a spectacle, but it has to be put in the context of what’s happening at the moment in Asia,” said Brett Gorvy, co-founder of Lévy Gorvy, an art dealership with galleries in London and New York.

Last week, the Swiss-based MCH Group announced that this year’s edition of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair, scheduled to begin previews on March 17, would be canceled. Christie’s has also postponed its March sale of 20th-century and contemporary art in Hong Kong. And on Wednesday, the Chinese state-owned company Poly Auction said that it would be postponing its spring series of sales in Hong Kong, scheduled to begin April 3.

Sotheby’s auctions programmed for that same week in Hong Kong were still going ahead, Mitzi Mina, head of the company’s London press office, said on Wednesday.

But international art buyers also have their eyes on the United States, where the Frieze Los Angeles fair opens later this week. “Everyone is talking about the collections coming up for sale in May,” Mr. Gorvy said, referring to the trophy-packed consignments of contemporary works from the estate of Donald Marron, valued at $450 million, and from the divorce of Harry and Linda Macklowe, estimated at more than $600 million, that are likely to appear in New York salesrooms in the spring. “People are keeping their powder dry,” Mr. Gorvy added.

With many of the world’s wealthiest collectors having other things on their minds, competition for the other “blue chip” works at the Sotheby’s sale on Tuesday was relatively subdued. An Yves Klein painting from 1960, for instance, whose use of a female model as the “brush” has become problematic in the age of #MeToo, sold to a single bid of £6.2 million.

But, as Mr. Gorvy pointed out, there was lively bidding lower down the price scale, particularly for art rooted in the street. Banksy’s repurposed “Vote to Leave” placard from the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, which had been a spoof exhibit at the Royal Academy’s 2018 Summer Exhibition, sold for £1.2 million, double its upper estimate.

“Empirical Mind State,” a 2009 spray-painted canvas by the New York-based artist Eddie Martinez was contested by at least five bidders before selling for £615,000. It had been valued at £100,000-£150,000.

The first major auction of contemporary art in London since Britain left the European Union (other sales follow at Christie’s on Wednesday evening and at Phillips on Thursday) raised £92.5 million, only a fraction below the £93.2 million of the equivalent event at Sotheby’s last March.

At the post-sale news conference, Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said that the auction had been “very much business as usual,” with the number of Asian clients registered to bid in line with other recent sales. Eight out the night’s 43 sold works went to buyers from Asia, he added.

But dealers noted that at the auction itself, bidding was dominated by specialists based in Europe and the United States.

“I wouldn’t imagine there were that many Chinese bids. They’re normally the people backing this market to the hilt,” said James Butterwick, a London-based dealer, who bought the 1985 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, “Rubber,” for an unnamed Russian collector for £7.5 million, within the estimate. “It’s a smart time for my client to buy.”

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