Estimated at £17m-20m, the auctioneers had arranged an irrevocable bid before the sale, meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.
At the auction on June 26, the competition that emerged was relatively cautious rather than spectacular as two telephone bidders and another interested party in the room took the price up slowly until it was eventually knocked down to a buyer placing bids through Sotheby’s European head of Contemporary art Alex Branczik.
The sum was the third highest for the artist at auction.
Reclining nudes were a regular subject for Freud but Portrait on a White Cover, which was painted in 2002-03, was among the last that he made.
He completed only three further reclining nudes before his death in 2011. The work that immediately preceded the current painting, a portrait of a pregnant Kate Moss from 2002, sold at £3.5m at Christie’s in 2005, making a then-record for the artist.
Sotheby’s said Portrait on a White Cover “represents the culmination of Freud’s lifelong engagement with the reclining nude”.
The 3ft 10in x 4ft 8in (1.17 x 1.43m) oil on canvas depicts Sophie Lawrence, who worked for Tate publishing and met Freud while he was preparing for his retrospective exhibition at the Tate in 2002. This is the only known portrait of her.
Upon completion, it was exhibited along with other new Freud paintings at the Wallace Collection in 2004 and was subsequently sold by New York’s Acquavella Galleries. Since then, it changed hands once in 2011 and was consigned to Sotheby’s by a private vendor.
The price means that five of the top six prices for Freud at auction are for reclining nudes. The auction record for the artist remains the $50m (£33.8m) bid for Benefits Supervisor Resting at Christie’s New York in 2015.
Hockney’s colourful landscape
Another work at Sotheby’s subject to an irrevocable bid was David Hockney’s (b.1937) large landscape Double East Yorkshire.
Estimated at £10m-15m, the oil on canvas (in two parts) came to auction from a vendor who had acquired it for a premium-inclusive £3.44m at Sotheby’s in June 2013. Here, it was knocked down to a phone bidder at £9.8m.
Dating from 1998, it was one of six works from the late 1990s depicting his native region. Hockney produced these works on his regular trips to Yorkshire to visit his mother who he would take out for long drives across the Wolds.
Although it sold below estimate, the price is the second highest for Hockney at auction, only behind the premium-inclusive $28.4m (£21m) fetched by the equally colourful California landscape Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica that sold at Sotheby’s New York in May.
Overall, the Sotheby’s evening sale generated a premium-inclusive total of £110.2m with 43 of the 44 lots sold. The 98% sell-through rate was the highest ever for a mixed-owner contemporary art auction in London.