Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

All the usual suspects such as Dali, Magritte and Ernst, cropped up in both sales but the results could not have been more different.

Sotheby’s specialist-in-charge Emmanuel di Donna described their 81-lot strong sale as “a bit difficult” while Oliver Camu of Christie’s claimed their sale had gone “extraordinarily well”.

Sotheby’s sale hung on the back of an important Salvador Dali (1904-1989) 1945 oil Le Nez de Napoleon which was withdrawn by the private European vendor before the catalogue was printed and sold to an unnamed museum for an undiclosed sum.

The picture had been heavily promoted – the auctioneers were clearly confident that it would top its high estimate of £3.5m – and it almost certainly took the edge off the rest of the sale and may have kept Dali buyers away, which would explain the failure of a number of other works by the Spanish artist.

Emmanuel di Donna did not share this view: “All the important internation buyers were there but maybe the works we had on offer were too sophisticated for them and they found them difficult to understand.”

Filling the Dali vacuum was Chiki, Ton Pays, an oil, tempera and ink by British born Leonora Carrington (b.1917) who worked with Max Ernst in Paris in 1937 and took up Mexican citizenship in 1942.

The influence of Latin America was evident in this mythological picture which was billed as “among the key works of Carrington’s Mexican period”. Inscribed 29 September and 7 October 1944, the picture was securely datable to 1947 and celebrates Carrington’s second marriage, in 1946, to ‘Chiki’ Weisz, a Hungarian photographer, and shows them in a red-draped chariot flying over a fantastical landscape.

“This picture was reasonably estimtated at £90,000-120,000 and the market reacted positively to it,” said Emmanuel di Donna. The picture was bought for £380,000 – making it the top lot of the sale – by London dealer Timothy Taylor on behalf of a private client.

The previous evening Christie’s held a streamlined sale of only 33 “carefully chosen” lots with 88 per cent sold by value; 80 per cent by lot and a total hammer total of £7.6m.
Specialist Oliver Camu led a pre-sale well-planned assault on seasoned buyers giving pictures “attractive estimates”; holding separate private viewings for major clients and choosing to focus the sale on early works from the 1920s/’30s and ’40s.

Such tactics resulted in a much “tighter” sale than last year. Unlike Sotheby’s, Christie’s found success with Dali, and his 1935-36 oil on panel Apparition de la ville de Delft topped the sale.

An abandoned car emerging from the top of a rock, a chest of drawers and shadowy figures, were all typical of Dali’s use of the subconscious and dream imagery whilst clever use was made of the skyline used by Vermeer (1632-75) in his celebrated View of Delft.

The picture had been bought at Christie’s London in 1966 for 4600gns and had passed by descent to the present owner.
It hadn’t been seen on the market since the aforementioned sale and was in pristine condition.

Over 10 bidders, mostly European and American privates and one institution, entered the race, with the hammer falling at a more than double-top-estimate £1.35m to a European collector.