Adrien Meyer of Christie’s

Adrien Meyer, Christie’s co-Chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art, selling René Magritte’s L'ami intime (The Intimate Friend) which was knocked down at £29m.

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The running total for the auctions last week was £335.4m with premium (three day sales were still to run at the time of writing). This compared to £431.7m for the equivalent series in 2023 and £548.6m in 2022.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s experienced an unusually high numbers of withdrawals – seemingly a reflection of a hesitant market where vendors are unwilling to risk their high-value works going unsold.

Christie’s sales performed the better with its 20th / 21st Century evening sale on March 7 generating £137.7m with 86% of the 80 lots sold (seven lots were withdrawn). Following the departure of Christie’s global president and lead auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen in December, the event was conducted by Adrien Meyer, the firm’s co-chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art.

Francis Bacon landscape

Landscape near Malataba, Tangier by Francis Bacon, £16.8m at Christie’s.

The auction was led by Francis Bacon’s Landscape near Malataba, Tangier (1963), a typically large oil on canvas from 1963. The vendor had acquired it in 2000 from London dealer Ivor Braka and here the auctioneers gave it a £15m-20m estimate and arranged a third party guarantee (meaning it was always bound to sell on the night).

With a number of interested parties emerging, it was bid up to £16.8m and knocked down to a buyer in the room. With buyer’s premium added, the price was £19.6m.

Following immediately on from the 20th / 21st Century evening sale, Christie’s held its Art of the Surreal sale – an auction that raised £59m with 22 of the 25 lots sold (88%). It included the top lot of the entire series: René Magritte’s (1898-1967) L'ami intime (The intimate friend), a trademark oil on canvas of a bowler-hatted figure from 1958.

René Magritte at Christie’s

L'ami intime (The intimate friend) by René Magritte, £29m at Christie’s.

It came from the collection of the late American financial publisher Gilbert Kaplan and his wife Lena. The couple had owned it since 1980.

Estimated at £30m-50m, it was another of the lots offered with a third party guarantee. Drawing less competition, it was knocked down on the phone at £29m, presumably to its guarantor. The price was £33.7m with premium.

Picasso at Sotheby’s

Meanwhile, Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary art evening sale on March 6 generated a total of £99.7m including premium from 60 lots (of which 54 sold). The sale had a total of 10 lots withdrawn, including a Blue Period Pablo Picasso portrait estimated at £5m-7m and a Josef Albers painting pitched at £800,000-1m.

The top lot was a late work by Picasso, Homme à la pipe from 1968, that drew a battle between multiple phone bidders. Estimated at £8m-12m, it was knocked down at £11.7m.

Homme à la pipe by Pablo Picasso

Homme à la pipe by Pablo Picasso, £11.7m at Sotheby’s.

Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art evening sale on March 7 posted a £13.7m total including premium with 23 of 26 lots sold (88%). It was led by Andy Warhol’s Portrait of Princess Diana from 1982 that surpassed a £1.2m-1.8m estimate and made £2.41m with fees included.

Phillips said it generated a four-minute bidding battle and achieved the highest price at auction for a Princess Diana work by the artist.