Despite the Summer Heatwave, London’s June Sales Were Tepid at Best

The June art auctions at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips brought in overall modest results that didn't stray far from the already conservative estimates.

Woman Auctioner offering a Picasso's painting in an auction house.
This year’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction included work from the Ralph I. Goldenberg Collection. Sotheby's

This summer’s auction round in London again confirmed a market considerably readjusting for Modern and Contemporary art. As sales and auction records slow down, this prompts the question of whether it’s time to update the auction calendar. The June London sales are now so compressed between the mammoth May Sales in New York (along with the May art fairs) and a busy fall season that seems to start earlier and earlier each year. The few bright spots of hope that led to impressive numbers were mainly for heavily guaranteed lots, as in-house and third-party guarantees played a significant role in directing and manipulating those sales—in the Sotheby’s evening sale alone, 30% of the lots were under warranty.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

The week began with Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Evening auction on June 25, which achieved a total of £83,618,832 ($105,748,556) on an estimate of £69.6-98.9m ($88-125.1m), with 90 percent of lots sold—a situation that sounds positive in a press release. But considering that the same auction last year closed with nearly double the total amount in sales, it might actually be an alarm bell. A big slice of the sale total came from the fourteen works in the Ralph I. Goldenberg Collection, which netted a combined total of £12,857,000 ($16,259,606), with two-thirds of the lots sold for above top estimate. In the day sale, the collection totaled £17,289,320 ($21,880,231).

The top lot of the night was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tryptic, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict, landing at £16,016,832 ($20,255,686), a little over the low estimate—a bargain compared to what we could have expected just two years ago for a work representing such a seminal moment in the artist’s life and career. The work was previously withdrawn when Christie’s tried to offer it at $30,000 in 2022.

In terms of records, Paula Rego’s Meadow, which sold for £2,070,000 ($2,617,826), marked the artist’s second-highest price for the artist at auction not for nothing. The painting had been labeled in the past as ‘the most striking image in the series’ in one of Rego’s most important exhibitions at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1997. It hasn’t been seen publicly since that show, as it has remained in the same collection for twenty-two years. The market is looking closely at the artist recently, and she will be the subject of a comprehensive exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, her first-ever presentation in Switzerland.

SEE ALSO: The World Trade Center Offers Case Studies in Making Space for Artists in Urban Centers

Continuing through the evening (and following the Sotheby's auctioneer doing his best to keep up the tone), the sale saw some lively bidding activity on the two magnificent Cy Twombly pieces from the Ralph I. Goldenberg Collection: the work on paper Formian Dreams + Actua, Formian Dreams + Actuality eventually realized double its estimate, with a final price of  £2,460,000 ($3,111,039) while By the Ionian Sea, oil and crayon on bronze sculpture, flew over its estimate to bring £2,160,000 ($2,731,644). Good attention was also given to an intimately scaled and fresh-to-market Agnes Martin from 2001, which fetched £744,000 ($940,900). Also from the Ralph I. Goldenberg Collection, the stunning Lucio Fontana’s white Concetto Spaziale, 1951, featuring a dynamic constellation of holes on its surface, succeeded in attracting buyer interest, eventually hammering for a substantial £600,000 ($758,790) after some lively back and forth between three bidders on the phone and one in the room. Despite the recent price slowdown for the Master of Spatialism, this auction resulted in a significant markup from its price of $38,000 when it was last sold in 1985.

As for Contemporary, the auction confirmed momentum for Lucy Bull, with seven bidders chasing 10:00, making it fly far beyond its estimate to £900,000 ($1,138,185). The current record for the artist was set at Sotheby’s New York last November when 16:10 sold for $1,814,500. In contrast, Loie Hollowell’s Milk Fountain had to be withdrawn before the sale as they couldn’t find buyers for the  £700,000 estimate, which was perhaps too ambitious in the current market compared to a few months ago. For Modern art, a classic of Impressionism, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Bouquet de Lilas from 1878, performed very well with a 10-minute bidding battle, achieving double its high estimate to close at £6,880,000 ($8,700,792). Looking at the market for Picasso, this time the timeless master scored more okay results with one of the auction highlights, Guitare sur un tapis rouge, selling for £10,730,000 ( $13,569,694) and his Nu assis, returning to the market after fifty years in the same collection and fresh to auction eventually selling for £5,760,000 ($7,284,38 ). Despite high pre-auction expectations, Tamara de Lempicka’s portrait of a woman was unexpectedly withdrawn from the auction, clearly affecting the potential total sales as originally it was the most expensive lot in the auction with its £6-8 million estimate. Similarly, Chris Ofili’s hilarious portrait of Trump failed to find a buyer with an estimated price of £600,000-800,000.

With a day to pause and reflect—and see Sotheby’s Day Sales, on June 27—paddles and hammers passed to Phillips and Christie's.
Asian woman auctionner selling Vivienne Westwood's Playing cards
Auctioneer Yü-Ge Wang selling THE BIG PICTURE – Vivienne’s Playing Cards, realizing £37,800 Christie's

Christie’s had already had a successful start to the week with a white gloves sale of Vivienne Westwood’s Personal Collection, with the live sale of part one totaling £465,192, while part two continues online until June 28. The leading lot was Vivienne’s Playing Cards, a project by The Vivienne Foundation for Greenpeace, which opened the auction and turned out to be the most expensive, selling for a total of £37,800. Among the unique garments from her collection, a corset gown of taupe silk taffeta Dressed to Scale Collection, Autumn-Winter 1998/99, worn to a gala event held in Westwood’s honor at London’s V&A Museum in 1998, achieved an outstanding £32,760, well over its estimate of £5,000-8,000. The evident excitement for this auction confirms that single-owner sales can attract more buyer interest and activity, especially when nourished with a story, a name and all the symbolic value this adds to the art and objects offered. 

Christie’s continued their busy June season with the Postwar-to-Present Day Sale on June 27, which brought in a total of £10,367,028. The auction had an exciting and hopeful start, with an abstraction by Los Angeles-based artist Daisy Parris going up to £35,000 from a very modest estimate of £6,000-8,000. The following lot, Alia Ahmad’s Wild Flower, also exceeded all expectations, landing at £46,620 from a high estimate of £12,000.

However, as the sale proceeded, other ultra-contemporary names didn’t see the dynamic bidding we could have expected from their recent movements. For instance, Brazilian artist Marina Perez Simão with Untitled was just able to meet the high estimate of £12,000, and Emma Webster’s Over the Roaring Fall of Annihilation realized £23,940, just slightly higher than the max estimate. We say the same “okay” results for Lot 14, Pam Evelyn’s Sprains, which sold for £15,120 (est. £8,000-12,000), and a work by Pace’s new roster addition, Paulina Owloska, sold within the estimate at £12,500. Overall, it was a buyers’ market for those hip emerging names, with some great bargains for collectors to acquire compared to their primary. Not bad, and there were some great lots from Post-War and after, such as Dan Flavin’s Untitled from 1964, which netted £170,000, exceeding the highest estimate of £120,000 and the museum-quality Bruce Nauman neon, Double Poke in the Eye II, coming from the De La Cruz Collection sold for a reasonable but not meteoric £352,800, despite excellent provenance and iconicity.  Surprisingly, at Christie’s, even an artist such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who has always performed very well, saw 5am, Cadiz, 2009, selling under its low estimate at £567,000 (est.600,000-800,000).

Wrapping up the June evening auctions, the Phillips Evening and Day sales closed the same night with a total of £13,054,965, with ninety-four lots sold of the 132 offered. George Condo’s Green and Purple Head Composition led the auction at Phillips, netting over £1 million (note: the prices and expectations here would have been much higher just last year). One of the best performances was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Minotaur To Matador, 2022, which sold for £952,500 ($1,203,865) from an estimate of £900,000-1,500,000. Meanwhile, Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s That Your Lovin’ Makes It Better landed at £241,300, over three times its estimate. 

Interestingly, the night also saw some good performances for two of the masters of contemporary photography, with the iconic Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #21, 1978, selling for £406,400 ($513,649) and the large-scale L.A. landscape shoot by Andreas Gursky fetching £546,100 ($690,216). But the night resulted in only one auction record with Wolfe von Lenkiewicz’s Garden of Earthly Delights, 2012, which was sold for £88,900 over £40,000-60,000.  The sale instead confirmed Andy Warhol’s market still solid, with his Campbell’s Soup from 1986 selling for £850,900 ($1,075,453). Finally, as one of the auction’s debuts to watch, the highly anticipated Lubaina Himid, The Bird Seller: Are You Listening, 2021, eventually hammered for a significant £381,000 ($481,546), despite this being just a little above the minimum estimate (£300,000-500,000).

Christie’s continues with their day sales today (June 28), but our considered takeaway from the above Summer auction results is that collectors now appear to be much more interested in artists born between the ’80s and the ’90s than in their Post-War counterparts. There’s still interest in Modern and Post-War masterpieces, but only if true quality and the right market conditions exist. It is again more and more clear that buyers are more thoughtful and cautious than ever, and their bellies have an appetite primarily for once-in-a-life opportunities or, even better, bargains.

Despite the Summer Heatwave, London’s June Sales Were Tepid at Best