Les Distractions de Dagobert by Leonora Carrington

Les Distractions de Dagobert by Leonora Carrington, $24.5m (£19.3m) at Sotheby’s.

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Carrington, who was born in Lancashire but spent much for her life in Mexico where she became a naturalised citizen, moved to central America during the Second World War.

Les Distractions de Dagobert, a 2ft 6in x 2ft 10in (76 x 87cm) tempera on Masonite from 1945, was painted just two years after her arrival in Mexico – a time regarded as a transformational period in her career where she began producing highly visual psychedelic scenes with complex imagery.

The picture at Sotheby’s was based on story of the 7th century Frankish ruler Dagobert, a Merovingian king renowned for his sexual excess and love of luxury. The scene shows a lake of fire engulfing an inverted idol, and a watery world where a giant with a double animal head holds a human-faced puffer fish.

Sotheby’s billed the work as ‘the definitive masterpiece of Leonora Carrington’s long and storied career, bearing all the hallmarks of the artist at her absolute height’.

The painting had previously sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1995 for $430,000 (£277,000). The buyer back then, a US collector, was the vendor this time round. With the Carrington market having expanded substantially since then and with much greater attention currently on female surrealists, here the auction house estimated the work at $12m-18m and arranged a third-party guarantee for the lot.

On the night, with multiple phone bidders in contention, it was the subject of a 10-minute bidding battle before it was eventually knocked down at $24.5m (£19.3m) to Argentinian real estate developer Eduardo F Costantini who was bidding at the front of the saleroom. Costantini, who founded the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, was the underbidder 30 years ago and was determined not to miss out this time.

Following the auction he said the work was “one the most admired works in the history of surrealism and an unparalleled masterpiece of Latin American art”. He added: “This masterpiece will be part of a collection alongside two important works by Remedios Varo and another record breaking Frida Kahlo.”

The previous record for Carrington was $2.65m (£2.12m) for the larger oil on canvas The Garden of Paracelsus from 1957 that sold at Sotheby’s in 2022.

Sotheby’s said the price of Les Distractions de Dagobert means Carrington is now the fourth highest-selling surrealist of all time and the fifth highest-selling female artist of any era.

Overall Sotheby’s Modern Art evening sale raised a premium-inclusive total of $235.1m (£185.1m) and was led by Claude Monet’s Meules à Giverny (1893) which was knocked down to a phone bidder at $30m (£23.6m).

Coin de jardin avec papillons by Vincent van Gogh

Coin de jardin avec papillons by Vincent van Gogh, $28.5m (£22.4m) at Christie's.

Christie’s meanwhile staged all its New York sales despite its main website being down all week, seemingly after a cyber attack. Its top lot was Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Coin de jardin avec papillons, an oil on canvas from 1887, that made $28.5m (£22.4m) at the 20th Century Evening Sale on May 16.

The combined total of the flagship series of Modern and Contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips and Bonhams was $1.4bn (£1.11bn) including premium. This compared to $1.79bn (£1.42bn) from the equivalent series last year.

£1 = $1.27