Opening with a select offering of Modern and Contemporary art, the evening auction was packed-out and generated strong interest throughout. Some fierce competition arrived on particular lots, helping the sale post 12 artists' records in all.
The first tranche of the three-part auction posted a hammer total of £20.5m with all 47 lots selling and most works fetching sums well above their attractive estimates.
The auctioneers reported the highest number of registered bidders ever for an evening sale at Sotheby’s London and they recorded double the number of US participants compared to a normal Modern British art sale.
Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker who conducted the sale from the rostrum pointed out afterwards that the market had ridden any fall-out from the US Presidential election two days earlier. “Given what the world has gone through in the last 48 hours, this was a huge boost of confidence,” he said.
Among the best performing lots was Frank Auerbach’s (b.1931) Head of Gerda Boehm. A thickly painted oil on board from 1965, it depicted the artist's older cousin who became the subject of his most emotionally charged portraits.
The prices of these pictures has risen significantly over the last five years and the striking example here was always likely to surpass its conservative estimate of £300,000-500,000. Six bidders competed for the lot and it finally came down to a contest between two interested parties on the phone.
It was eventually knocked down at £3.25m to a buyer bidding through Simon Hucker, Sotheby’s senior specialist of Modern & Post-War British Art. The price was a major auction record for the artist, surpassing the previous high of £2.32m (including premium) for Primrose Hill, Summer sold in the same rooms in 2014. It was also a dramatic increase on the £48,000 Bowie had paid for it at Christie's in May 1995.
According to the catalogue, Bowie had said he used to look at the Auerbach painting some mornings and say: “My god, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.”
Indeed, it was clear that the singer and songwriter had a great personal attachment to many of works on offer in the sale. Sotheby’s head of department Frances Christie said Bowie had “read every single book available on each of the artists in the collection".
"He was actually a bit of an art nerd,” she said. “His collection drew out the art nerd in us too."
Another of the 11 Mod Brit records at the sale came as Harold Gilman’s (1876-1919) Interior (Mrs Mounter) sold at £400,000. Estimated at £150,000-250,000, it drew interest both in the room and on the phone, before it was knocked down to a phone buyer who was bidding through Christie herself.
Deemed an important oil on canvas by one of the founders of the Camden Town group, it dated from 1917 and depicted Gilman’s landlady bathed in light but also imbued with a patent sense of ennui.
Since comparable works by Gilman do not often come to auction, here it broke the artist’s record that had stood for over 13 years. When the bidding momentarily stalled, Barker encouraged one of the bidders from the rostrum by saying: “It’s not everyday the Bowie Gilman comes up sir.”
Bowie had acquired the painting at Christie’s in March 1994 for a then-record £100,000, meaning the sum fetched here represented a major increase even accounting for inflation and suggesting that a ‘Bowie bounce’ had also helped push up the price.
The same seemed true for a drawing by Henry Lamb. The study for a portrait of the writer and critic Lytton Strachey dated from 1913 and drew bidding from four bidders including dealers Robert Travers of Piano Nobile and Daniel Katz who eventually secured it at a record £80,000.
The top lot of the night was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Air Power, a large acrylic and oilstick on canvas from 1984. It drew four bidders and sold at £6.2m to the same buyer who had purchased the previous lot, another work by the artist at £660,000.
This was the fourth time Air Power had appeared at auction in 30 years.
It had previously sold twice at Christie’s New York – for $27,000 (£16,031) in May 1987 and then for $290,000 (£182,792) in November 1989. It was later acquired by Bowie in November 1995 at Christie's London where it was knocked down at £70,000.
David Bowie Evening Sale in Numbers
The number of registered bidders for the sale – the highest ever at Sotheby’s for a London evening auction.
The number of countries represented among the bidders at the sale.
Number of Sotheby’s staff on the phone banks for the sale, including specialists from their Contemporary, Modern British, Impressionist & Modern and Old Master departments.
Number of visitors to the 10-day exhibition of the David Bowie collection at Sotheby’s.
Number of registered online bidders
With more lots still to be offered, the Bowie factor is likely to bring more competition later today as 308 further works of art and design from his collection go under the hammer. They are expected to bring between £1.7m-2.5m although it would be no surprise if the estimates are easily exceeded once again.