A look back over the major October art sales


Works by Old Masters, Impressionists, Modern artists and Contemporary artists were all on offer in prestige sales that ended a few days ago most of which defiantly ignored traditional  classifications. Christie’s had a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton and a painting by Monet, while Sotheby’s offered three sculptural Alfa-Romeos by Franco Scaglione alongside a work by Richard Prince. The question is… did the auction houses succeed in capturing the attention of major buyers? Our answer… in the form of a quick overview of the best results in October.

With the health crisis and all the restrictions and doubts about the future, it is not easy to convince collectors to part with their finest works. However, the very survival of the auction houses depends on their capacity to ensure a constant flow of quality works (and various ‘objects’ in this case) and reasonably good ‘sold rates’.

Despite a context whose abnormality has almost become the ‘new norm’, the sales were stimulating with works by Cranach, Twombly, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and even Giacometti… The results were encouraging too, with no less than 299 works fetching over a million dollars, including 20 at over $10 million.

Two Chinese masters and an American abstract on the podium

The best result wasn’t exactly where it was expected. It wasn’t hammered in New York or Hong Kong… but in Beijing, for a work by the 16th century old master – WU Bin (c.1568-1620) – whose immense scroll mixing calligraphy and landscapes fetched the spectacular price of $76.6 million. This historic sale orchestrated by Poly International
sets the new auction record for the master of the Ming dynasty at approximately fifty million dollars above the artist’s previous record! That’s a staggering jump …

No less than 299 works sold for above $1 million dollars,
including 20 at over $10 million.

The month’s second most impressive result was also generated by a Chinese old master, REN Renfa (1255-1327). Active in the 14th century, the rarity and prestige associated with Renfa’s works justified a price of $39.5 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. However, although it was a remarkable result, the same work (Five Drunken Kings Return on Horses) actually fetched $44.1 million in 2016 at Poly International (an 11% value contraction).

The third result on this podium suggests that Contemporary art is as much of a safe haven as Old Master art. On 6 October, Christie’s hammered $38.7million for Cy TWOMBLY’s masterpiece Untitled [Bolsena] (1969), beating the $31.8 million fetched by the spectacular Tyrannosaurus Rex. In the same sale (which totalled $340.8 million), five other works crossed the $10 million threshold under the signatures of Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

The best-placed auction houses

Sotheby’s is ahead of its competitors. If we look at the 50 best results of October, 48% were hammered by the American company owned by Patrick Drahi, versus 38% by Christie’s and 10% by Poly International. Phillips and Bonhams complete the picture each with a single 7-digit result: the former after fetching $10.6 million for Salvador DALI’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages (1937) and the latter for a work by Georg BASELITZ from 1982 (Das letzte Selbstbildnis I), which sold for $6.4 million.

Almost half of the top 50 results came from Sotheby’s.

In addition to the Twombly work that fetched over $30 million, Sotheby’s obtained substantial results for several works including a large abstract painting by Gerhard RICHTER, which soared to $27.7 million (Abstraktes Bild (649-2)).
Sotheby’s sale on 21 October (generating a total of $90.4 million) further confirmed BANKSY‘s success when his Show me the Monet sold to a private Asian collector for $9.8 million. A few days earlier in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s sold a Banksy work measuring over six meters high (Forgive us our trespassing) for $8.2 million. Crisis or no crisis, demand for Banksy’s work is continuing to grow. He already has record auction turnover for the year 2020 with an annual total currently standing at over $41 million (versus $24 million in 2019).

Crisis or no crisis… Banksy’s art market performance is progressing.

By the end of October, Sotheby’s had raised $141 million from works of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, including nearly $15 million for three Alfa Romeos (designed more to be admired rather than driven). The only lot higher estimated than the sculptural cars, a Mark ROTHKO masterpiece expected to sell for over $25 million unfortunately failed to sell. This was a major disappointment, but it was generously offset by the sale of a CALDER mobile  (Sumac 17) for $8.3 million, a canvas by Frank STELLA (Untitled) for $8 million, then a GIACOMETTI sculpture (Femme Leoni) for $25.9 million, a painting by Vincent VAN GOGH (Fleurs dans un verre) for $16 million, another by MAGRITTE for $14 million and lastly one by DE CHIRICO for a new auction record at $15.9 million that largely reassured a market whose scope for movement has never been so restricted….

De Chirico’s new record reassured a market whose scope for movement has never been so restricted.