2018 was a boom year for auctioneers
Ten highlights from a bumper crop including Picasso, Modigliani and Winnie the Pooh
In 2017, Salvator Mundi, the supposed “lost” Leonardo da Vinci, obliterated the record for the most expensive painting sold at auction. That was despite its rather iffy provenance, which was called into question again last month. How could 2018 compete? Well, quite easily, as it turned out. Here are ten highlights from this year.
Pablo Picasso’s Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (1937) was the first of the big trophy paintings to hit the auction block, making £49.8m in February at Sotheby’s in London. But the high-water mark for the art market came in May. In New York, Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 Nu Couché (pictured above) sold for $139m.
An astronomical price, yes, but not quite high enough to hit the pre-sale estimate of $150m. That was always ambitious given that Modigliani had painted 21 other similar reclining nudes in his short lifetime, and the super-high-end art market (a law unto itself) wasn’t particularly excited.
Spring was as busy as ever. Bonhams in Hong Kong brought the hammer down at HK$8.0m on a bottle of 1926 Macallan whisky bearing a label by British artist Peter Blake, thus marking the world’s first million-dollar bottle of whisky. Those in the auction room might have thought they were seeing double when, moments later, the auctioneer did it again on another bottle – this time a 1926 Macallan with a label by Valerio Adami, at HK$8.6m. Meanwhile, a new high price for Japanese whisky was set in August, when a bottle of 50-year-old Yamazaki fetched HK$2.7m also at Bonhams.
The $832.6m sale of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection of artworks and belongings at Christie’s in New York for charitable causes was the other headline-grabbing event in May. Despite setting a record for a single-owner collection, it still disappointed some (mostly headline writers), who had hoped for $1bn.
Still, it was rather more than the $3.7m that actor Russell Crowe raised in April when he launched a light-hearted sale of his own memorabilia at Sotheby’s called “The Art of Divorce” to finance his split from his wife.
Pooh Bear market
The market in Winnie-the-Pooh turned out to be more bullish than bearish this summer. In July, the original sketch of 100 Acre Wood, from the first Winnie-the-Pooh book (above), described by Sotheby’s as “probably the most famous map in English literature”, sold for £430,000 – an auction record for a book illustration.
Next, it was the turn of classic cars. Earlier in the year, the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns report rated vintage beemers as the most lucrative of collectable assets, offering a whopping 242-return since 1980. So, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock in July that a 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato set a European record for a British car at Goodwood when it sold for £10.1m. Yet even that was just a warm-up lap to the real race that came the following month. In New York, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO – the third made of 36 – became the most expensive set of wheels to be sold at auction.
The keys to this car cost $48.4m. That said, just weeks before, it was widely reported in the press that American entrepreneur and car collector David MacNeil had paid $70m for a 1963 250 GTO in a private deal. It had apparently cost its seller $52m in 2013 – an expensive bargain.
Philately gets you nowhere
At the start of October, one-time “Bond King” Bill Gross parted with a chunk of his stamp collection. For several years now the stamp market has been in a slump – so much so that the 162-year-old dealer Stanley Gibbons got into financial bother last year.
One problem, according to Bloomberg Pursuits, was that in hoovering up the remaining coveted American stamps that weren’t already in museums and private collections, Gross had “effectively cornered the market”. It was better, Gross conceded, “to give other collectors a chance to own some of these stamps and to use the proceeds for philanthropy”.
And he did. In New York, Robert A Siegel Auction Galleries set an auction record for the most raised in a single day – $10m. A block of four inverted 24-cent US postage stamps from 1869 (above) was the most expensive lot, fetching $625,000 (before fees) – below its $750,000 lower estimate.
Days later at Sotheby’s in London, spectators were aghast when Banksy’s Girl with Balloon passed through a shredder, concealed in the frame by the mysterious artist, seconds after the hammer came down at £860,000.
The stunt captured all the headlines. The BBC’s art critic Will Gompertz even awarded the newly named Love is in the Bin five stars, adding that it would be seen as “one of the most significant artworks of the early 21st century”. We shall see.
The real star of the show that same evening, however, was Jenny Saville’s Propped (1992). The unflattering self-portrait made £9.5m – far in excess of its £4m upper valuation, making it the most expensive painting by a living female artist.
The most expensive painting by a living male artist (who, like Saville, is British) was sold the following month at Christie’s in New York. David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) fetched $90.3m, easily surpassing the $58.4m paid for American artist Jeff Koons’ giant orange Balloon Dog sculpture in 2013.
A toast to the new year
Then in the final months of 2018, a bottle of Burgundy smashed the previous auction record for wine when a bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti sold for $558,000. Indeed, the old record of $233,000 for a single bottle was surpassed twice that morning when a second bottle of the same wine sold for $496,000.
And finally, for a little glamour, Marie Antoinette’s stunning natural pearl and diamond pendant came up for auction at Sotheby’s in Geneva. It sold for CHF36.4m, shattering its pre-sale estimate of up to CHF2m and the previous record for pearl jewellery, a necklace that had belonged to Elizabeth Taylor and which sold for $11.8m in 2011.
This article was originally published in MoneyWeek