Banksy and Rembrandt Boost Sotheby’s Sale to $192.7 Million

LONDON — It was conceived as a Covid-enforced stopgap. But is watching an auctioneer on a screen really what “live” art sales are going ...

LONDON — It was conceived as a Covid-enforced stopgap. But is watching an auctioneer on a screen really what “live” art sales are going to be from now on?

Tuesday night, Sotheby’s held a livestream auction of 65 artworks from seven centuries that replaced its traditional summer marquee sales of old master, Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in the British capital.

Titled “Rembrandt to Richter,” this historical mash-up was technically the first major live offering in London since the coronavirus lockdown. However, continuing restrictions on travel and congregation meant that the auctioneer, Oliver Barker, was once again on-camera in an empty salesroom, taking bids around the world from colleagues on screens, just as he had been last month at Sotheby’s $363.2 million inaugural “multicamera global livestream” sale. The ever-ebullient Mr. Barker was on the rostrum for a little over three hours.

“It’s slow,” said Philip Hoffman, founder and chief executive of the Fine Art Group, a London-based advisory firm. “But there’s no audience with dinner parties to go to, and the auction house is making massive cost savings on catalogs, travel and entertainment.”

Sotheby’s cross category selection, sourced during the lockdown, reflected collectors’ current reluctance to offer multimillion-dollar artworks at public auction, unless they have to. If trophies do appear, they are generally guaranteed by Sotheby’s or a third party to sell for a hefty minimum price.

If works don’t attract pre-sale interest, they can simply be withdrawn to avoid the stigma of being unsold. Francis Bacon’s 1986 “Study for a Portrait of John Edwards,” valued at least 12 million pounds, or about $15 million, was one of six works withdrawn from this sale.

Joan Miro’s 1927 Surrealist masterwork, “Peinture (femme au chapeau rouge),” one of a series of acclaimed “Dream” paintings made in Paris in the 1920s, was certain to sell for at least £20 million. Formerly belonging to the sculptor Alexander Calder, it was entered by an American private collector identified by Bloomberg News as Ronald Perelman, the billionaire owner of the cosmetics company Revlon, whose profits have slumped in recent years. Selling the painting took 11 minutes. It eventually fell to bidding from New York at £22.3 million with fees, or about $28.7 million, the top price of the evening.

“Some things look great online,” said Hugo Nathan, partner in the London-based advisory company, Beaumont Nathan. “Some don’t. Bold images thrive,” added Mr. Nathan, who was among a select group of 30 clients who attended the auction in person in a socially distanced auxiliary room.

Rembrandt’s small, sketch-like 1632 panel painting, “Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat,” was a less obvious candidate for success in a high-tech “clicks-and-bricks” auction. One of just three Rembrandt self-portraits left in private hands, this was nonetheless pursued by six bidders to £14.5 million, or about $18.7 million, against a low estimate of £12 million.

“If you take artists out of the old master field, they appeal to buyers who are not bogged down by the persnickety stuff that the old master crowd cares about,” said Mr. Nathan.

The same could have applied to the rare panel painting, “Battle on the Banks of a River,” by the pioneering 15th century Florentine artist Paolo Uccello, recently returned to the heirs of the Amsterdam-based collector Fritz Gutmann, who died in a concentration camp in 1944. This attracted bidding from collectors of 20th century art, selling for £2.4 million, or about $3.1 million, four times the low estimate and an auction record for the artist.

But aside from such selected old masters, and occasional modern British highlights, such as the 1923 canvas, “Still Life With Tulips and Fan,” by the Scottish painter Samuel John Peploe at £675,000, or about $870,000, the most significant prices were generated by the usual blue-chip names of evening modern and contemporary auctions. The upper-estimate £12.2 million, or $15.6 million given for Fernand Leger’s 1914 Cubist painting, “Nature Morte,” seemed almost routine.

Banksy is now also one of these blue-chip names. The Bristol-born graffiti artist astutely used the global marketing heft of this sale by including his triptych, “Mediterranean Sea View 2017,” showing refugees’ life jackets washed up on kitsch 19th century-style beach scenes, to fund facilities in the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, a nonprofit hospital. The paintings had hung nearby in his Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. A flurry of London-based telephone bidding resulted in a price of £2.2 million, or about $2.9 million, against a low estimate of £800,000.

“Love it when they’re bidding against each other in London,” said Mr. Barker, assiduously promoting the new format as he fielded the bids. “See it on the split screens. The future of auctioneering.”

Overall, Sotheby’s “Rembrandt to Richter” sale raised £149.7 million, or about $192.7 million from 65 lots. Last summer’s equivalent evening sales in London of old masters, Impressionist, modern and contemporary art netted about $283 million.

Proceeds might have been down, but so too were expenses. Sotheby’s owner, French-Israeli telecoms magnate Patrick Drahi, borrowed $1.1 billion to finance the acquisition of the auction house in 2019 and these global livestream sales are part of a developing high tech, low cost strategy that may well be the future of auctioneering. Sotheby’s said in the post-sale news conference that 150,000 people had tuned into the “Rembrandt to Richter” livestream.

“Another extraordinarily slick production from Sotheby’s, with the results to match,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser who was watching Sotheby’s auction online. “These marquee sales are now the public face of the entire art market.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Banksy and Rembrandt Boost Sotheby’s Sale to $192.7 Million
Banksy and Rembrandt Boost Sotheby’s Sale to $192.7 Million
Newsrust - US Top News
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