Active bidding emerged throughout the 46-lot sale and a number of strong individual prices gave the market a timely boost. A potential negative impact from last week's UK vote to leave the EU failed to materialise and, on the night, 40 lots sold (87%) for a £43.9m hammer total.
Although the lack of stellar works meant this figure was lower than many previous Contemporary art evening sales held in the same room, it was well within the £35.4-50m presale estimate.
There was a sense of relief during and after the sale which, to some extent, was bought about by the drop in the value of sterling meaning purchases would be cheaper for overseas buyers. The jump in the value of gold since the Referendum on June 23 also suggested that tangible assets may be proving more desirable for investors with the current uncertain economic outlook and forthcoming US Presidential election.
Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of Contemporary art Europe said: “It’s been quite a week with the Brexit vote but tonight we’ve shown London is still a very vibrant hub of the market. We saw collectors’ passions override broader concerns about the wider economy. The bidding that emerged here was beyond currency fluctuations; these prices would still stand up using exchange rates from before the Brexit vote.”
He added that a notable feature of the sale was Asian bidders competing on Western works and visa versa.
The eyecatching result of the night came for Jenny Saville’s Shift (1996-7) which set a major record as it drew at least five bidders against a £1.5m-2m estimate. Four bidders were prepared to go over £4m for the momumental nude that featured in the famous Sensation exhibition of works by the ‘Young British Artists’ from the Saatchi Collection in 1997.
The vendor had purchased the 10ft 10in (3.3m) square oil on canvas from the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2005 and dealer Larry Gagosian was among the underbidders here as he sat in the fifth row of the saleroom bidding for a client on his mobile phone.
As the price reached £5.7m, the phone line to the eventual winning bidder was suddenly lost. Sotheby's representative in Beijing Jen Hua quickly tried to reconnect while auctioneer Oliver Barker said from the rostrum: “If I had any good Brexit jokes I’d use them now.”
Once the line was re-established, the bidding continued and the hammer finally fell at £5.95m with the saleroom breaking into applause.
It was a major record for Jenny Saville and the highest ever auction price for a British female artist.
It emerged shortly after the sale that Jen Hua had been bidding on behalf of Wang Wei, director of the Long Museum in Shanghai who plans to include the work in the forthcoming She exhibition of works by international female artists at the gallery opening at the end of July.
Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division told ATG after the sale: “This picture would do well in any market. We even teased clients that they were getting a 10% discount due to currency rates.” She added that there were at least two US underbidders on the picture.
“It was all hands on deck after Brexit,” she said. “But tonight we saw there’s no market problem, only a supply problem.”
Elsewhere at the sale, a record price was posted for Keith Haring as the large canvas The Last Rainforest (1989) overshot a £2m-3m estimate and made £3.6m. It was knocked down to a US phone bidder represented by Cappellazzo in the room.
Never before offered at auction, the picture was billed as Keith Haring’s “last great masterpiece”, painted just before his death in February 1990.
A strong contest also came for Jean Dubuffet’s Barbe de Lumière des Aveuglés (Beard of Blinding Light) which took £.2.7m and Adrian Ghenie’s The Hunted which drew six bidders and fetched £1.55m, selling to an Asian private buyer on the phone.
The Sotheby’s sale followed some decent results at Phillips’ auction the night before. Overall, 21 lots of 31 works sold for a premium-inclusive total of £11.9m, led by a work by Anselm Kiefer that sold at a triple-estimate £2.39m (including premium).
Christie’s Contemporary art evening takes place tonight.