A painting by pioneering Russian-born modernist Wassily Kandinsky sold for 37.2 million pounds, or about $44.9 million, at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday evening during a marquee week of auctions that were the year’s first major test of confidence levels at the top end of the international art market.
Estimated to sell for at least $45 million, “Murnau With Church II,” painted in 1910, was one of the largest of an admired series of works edging toward abstraction that Kandinsky made while staying at an artists colony in Bavaria, Germany. After a 12-year legal wrangle, the canvas had recently been returned by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, to the heirs of prominent Berlin collectors Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann and Siegbert Samuel Stern.
The Kandinsky, the star work of Sotheby’s 36-lot sale of modern and contemporary art, sold to a single telephone bid from a buyer that was its third-party guarantor.
“I was surprised. It was a fantastic painting. Find me another,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, a Berlin-based art adviser and dealer, who was mystified by the lack of competition for such a historically important work.
“It was a high starting price, but it was the right price,” zu Hohenlohe said. “But sometimes these things happen.”
The price was nonetheless a new auction high for Kandinsky.
“It’s not quite at the point of orchestral abstraction,” said Richard Nagy, a London-based dealer who specializes in early 20th-century German art.
“But it’s one of the best pictures to be seen in London for a long time,” he said, referring to the city’s recent dearth of trophy-level modern and contemporary auction lots.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s no longer hold separate evening sales of high-value impressionist or modern and contemporary art. In both New York and London, the categories are now mashed into evenings of works spanning three centuries, with most excitement generated by the latest of-the-moment names.
In London on Wednesday, Sotheby’s kick-started its evening with 21 works in its new “The Now” format for the sale of young art. First up was the large, enigmatic interior “Family Issues I,” from 2019, by Mohammed Sami, a London-based Iraqi exile whose paintings are currently the subject of an enthusiastically reviewed show at Camden Art Center. Estimated to sell for at least $60,000, this work rose to $428,996, setting a benchmark price for Sami on his auction debut.
Last month, London-based analysts ArtTactic published a report gauging confidence in the contemporary art market. The 124 respondents took a negative view of its prospects in the first half of 2023, citing “economic and geopolitical uncertainty,” but the report added that a majority expected the market for “on-the-rise” artists to grow.
If demand for a fashionable name peaks, the auction houses simply replace it with another. The previous evening at Christie’s, for instance, young British painter Michaela Yearwood-Dan suddenly became a name to watch after her highly decorative floral abstract “Love me nots” (2021) was contested by at least six telephone bidders to $880,614, some 16 times the low estimate. This month, Yearwood-Dan will feature in “Rites of Passage,” a themed group show at Gagosian in London.
“I’ve sold five works by an artist included in that Gagosian show since it was announced,” said Ayo Adeyinka, founder of the London-based contemporary dealership Tafeta. “It gives an artist commercial momentum.”
“But that price is still a shock,” Adeyinka added. “It’s a huge jump.”
Experts noted that with so much attention focused on young art, some of the energy has been sucked out of the market for classic modern and contemporary works, unless they happen to be out-and-out trophies.
The most highly valued work at Christie’s on Tuesday evening was “Femme dans un Rocking-chair (Jacqueline),” the large 1956 Pablo Picasso canvas that featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Picasso: 75th Anniversary” exhibition in 1957. Guaranteed to sell for at least $19 million, this stuttered to $20.4 million with fees, albeit the top price of Christie’s marathon sale in its combined “20th/21st Century” and “The Art of the Surreal” programs.
“It was big, it was a Picasso, but it was difficult to love,” said Hugo Nathan, co-founder of the London-based art advisers Beaumont Nathan.
“There are weak pictures carrying high prices at the moment,” he added. “In this market, it has become a concern. Serious collectors know how good things are and what they are worth.”
But the four-hour sale of 106 lots at Christie’s did contain some highly desirable older works, including 15 of the choicest surrealist paintings from Bay Area collectors Gary and Kathleen Heidenreich.
Among the standout rarities was the magical “Portrait of Doctor Ignacio Chávez” (1957) by Spanish-born Remedios Varo, who spent most of her life working in Mexico. Her vision of an eminent 20th-century cardiologist as a cave-dwelling hermit turning keys in patients’ hearts had never appeared at a public sale and sold for $4.7 million, the second-highest price for the artist at auction.
The Heidenreich group of surrealist works contributed $24.4 million to Christie’s overall total of $202.4 million. Sotheby’s more compact 57-lot offering of young, modern and contemporary art raised $208.2 million, with a monumental 13-foot-wide Gerhard Richter from 1986, “Abstraktes Bild,” proving to be the evening’s other main highlight at $29.2 million.
Both totals were considerably lower than the $298 million and $297.2 million achieved by Christie’s and Sotheby’s at their equivalent sales last March. Experts are concerned that in the current geopolitical climate, this is a market with a softening middle, particularly for modern artworks.
“Because the global economy is not at its best time, many collectors reserve their works or make private sales,” said Weiyan Liu, a Shanghai-based art consultant, who was among a noticeably larger presence of Asian visitors in the London salesrooms now that China has lifted its coronavirus-related travel ban.
“I think the young artists are doing quite well,” Liu said. “But I am not sure it’s the case for modern artworks, except the ones with great provenance.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.