The sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips raised a combined running total of £429.5m with one online sale still to run at the time of going to press. This was down on the £548.6m for the equivalent sales last year but above the £312.1m for the March 2021 series.
As expected one such work made the highest price of the week – Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) Murnau mit Kirche II, a large oil on canvas from 1910. Offered at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary evening sale on March 1, it had a third-party guarantee and sold to a lone phone bidder below presale expectations at £37.2m including premium. Nevertheless, the price was a record for the artist at auction, surpassing the £29.2m achieved in the same rooms in 2017 for Bild mit weissen linien (Painting with white lines) from 1913.
The picture was an early example of the artist’s pioneering experiments with abstract forms and was acquired soon after it was painted by Johanna Margarete Stern (née Lippmann) and Siegbert Samuel Stern (1864-1935), the co-founders of a major Berlin textile business. While Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, Johanna Margarete was eventually forced to flee Germany and, after going into hiding in the Netherlands, she was captured by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in May 1944.
The Kandinsky painting ended up on the walls of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven but, after a long legal battle, was restituted last year to the descendants of the Stern family whose 13 surviving members will share the proceeds of the Sotheby’s sale.
Another restitution at the Sotheby’s sale was Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944) four-metre-long painting Dance on the Beach from 1906-07. Originally commissioned as one of 12 monumental canvases for a frieze at Max Reinhardt’s avant-garde theatre in Berlin, it had been owned by Dr Curt Glaser, a major cultural figure in 1930s Berlin who was forced to flee when the Nazis came to power.
After a tumultuous journey in the lead up to and during the Second World War, the painting was later acquired by the Norwegian shipping magnate Thomas Olsen – who also owned the version of Munch’s The Scream that sold for a record $107m (£69m) at Sotheby’s New York in 2012.
Dance on the Beach was consigned to Sotheby’s following an agreement between the Olsen and Glaser families. Estimated at £12m-20m, a third party guarantee was arranged in the run up to the sale but here the work drew decent bidding in any case and was knocked down at £14.5m.
The sale of these two works followed a restituted Old Master, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, making $9m (£7.32m) at Sotheby’s New York in January.
Sotheby’s worldwide head of restitution Lucian Simmons said: “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conference, held in Washington, DC, that first established the ground rules for the restitution of art works looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. Since then, Sotheby’s Restitution Department has worked with many heirs and families to reunite them with their stolen property and, at the same time, to help re-tell their stories and celebrate their lives.”
Overall the Sotheby’s sale posted a premium-inclusive total of £160.4m with 30 of the 36 lots finding buyers (83.3%).
Picasso and Giacometti
Christie’s 20th / 21st Century evening sale the night before raised £129m with 64 of the 74 lots (87%) sold.
The highest price came for Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) Femme dans un rocking-chair (Jacqueline) from 1956 which knocked down at £14.5m, under its £15m-20m estimate.
More competition came for an Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) chandelier made in the 1940s for the London offices of cultural magazine Horizon. Estimated at £1.5-2.5m, it drew five phone bidders and was knocked down at £2.4m.
After Horizon closed in 1950, the chandelier ended up in the antiques shop of Elizabeth Denton in Marylebone but without attribution. It was later purchased by artist John Craxton (1922-2009) from the shop in the late 1960s for just £250, using all his savings to do so.
He hung it in his family’s Hampstead home where it remained until his death in 2009.
Sotheby’s buyer’s premium change
The latest London sales were the first major auction series since Sotheby’s raised its buyer’s premium last month.
Effective from February 1, a 26% rate is now charged at the lower tier (previously 25%) with the threshold to which it applies raised from £700,000 to £800,000.
The 20% tier now runs to £3.8m (previously £3.5m).
The additional 1% overhead premium at Sotheby’s on the entire hammer price remains in place.