Following the general recovery of 18% in the first half of 2018, art collectors around the world continued their quest for sought-after artworks.

The prestigious global October and November auction calendars yielded mixed results for auction houses. Contemporary art sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in mid-November brought in totals of $357m and $362m, respectively. These handsome turnovers were generated from only 93 lots sold.

Christie’s highlight was a painting by David Hockney, entitled Portrait of an Artist — Pool with Two Figures, which sold for $90.3m, making Hockney the most expensive living artist to date. Sotheby’s achieved three new records for African-American art when Jacob Lawrence’s The Businessmen sold for $6.2m, Jack Whitten’s Ancient Mentor I for $2.2m and Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You, for just under $1m. In addition, six works by Basquiat generated a total of $50.2m.

Christie’s Impressionist and modern art sale generated $279m, somewhat lower than Sotheby’s corresponding sector sale of $315.5m. Post-sale analyses criticised Christie’s bullish auction estimates, which resulted in significant works going unsold, such as Van Gogh’s Coin de Jardin avec Papillons and Pablo Picasso’s Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie-Thérèse).

Their poorer performance points to a market correction for this art sector, which record performances in 2017. The estate sale of US entrepreneur collector Barney Ebsworth set a new record for Edward Hopper’s painting Chop Suey, which sold for $91.9m.

Sotheby’s modern and contemporary African art sale impressed when 50% of the lots sold above their high estimate. El Anatsui’s Tagomizor was the top lot, selling at £670,000, while Nigeria’s Ben Enwonwu delivered the second-highest price with Africa Dances, which realised £187,500.

The auction markets never cease to generate surprises. At Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesroom in London, a Banksy canvas entitled Girl With Balloon self-destructed seconds after it was knocked down for more than £1m. The work moved through a shredder secretly concealed inside a frame constructed by Banksy. The “performance” raised questions about whether it was a brazen act of sabotage or a clever stunt that may add millions to the value of the work in today’s conceptual art environment where anything goes.

In a second surprise, a computer-generated artwork, valued at $7,000 to $10,000, entitled Edmond de Belamy from La Famille de Belamy, sold for $432,500 at Christie’s. A Paris-based group, known as Obvious, applied Generative Adversarial Networks artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to create the work. The six-figure price is unheard of in the art market, since there is no history of any prestigious art gallery selling works produced with AI artificial intelligence at such premiums.

On the local auction markets, all the major auction houses encountered a sluggish middle market, which resulted in lower sale-through rates than normal. However, the top-end artworks continued to perform well and the convincing results in this sector are an indication that quality artworks will always find a home.

Irma Stern’s Dahlias was the top lot at Strauss & Co’s spring sale in Cape Town, selling for R9.1m. Pierneef’s casein work on paper, Lowveld Eastern Transvaal, sold for R5.9m, setting a record for this medium on paper in Johannesburg.

In addition, new artist records were set for Moses Tladi when his Mountain Landscape (Mont-aux-Sources) sold for R455,200, and for Fritz Krampe when his double-sided painting, Village Scene with Woman Smoking Pipe with Fishing Boat on the verso side, sold for R682,800.

At Aspire’s spring auction, a record was set for a William Kentridge drawing when Stereoscope (Double page, Soho in two rooms) sold for R6.6m. At the same auction, Georgina Gratrix’s I Love you All the Time, set a new auction record for the artist when it sold for R519,760.

The demand for Alexis Preller paintings remains strong as his painting titled Adam, which was exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial in 1973, sold at Aspire for R9.1m. Another Preller painting, Apple II, sold for R4.55m at Strauss & Co. Anton van Wouw’s Kruger in Exile sold for R580,500 at Stephan Welz & Co, setting a record for this Kruger cast by the G Massa foundry in Rome.

October brought notable events around photography, a medium that continues to gain acceptance as a sophisticated fine art form to collect. The 22nd edition of Paris Photo 2018 brought 167 galleries from 30 countries to the Grand Palais in Paris. The Goodman Gallery showed David Goldblatt photographs together with a Goldblatt documentary film, which was directed by Daniel Zimbler.

Work inspired by fashion photography came from the lenses of German photographer Jurgen Teller and Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf, who staged models in front of elaborate décor backdrops.

Statistics show that only seven female photographers ranked in the top 50 list in the first half of 2018. To counter this imbalance, Paris Photo 2018 and the French ministry of culture launched Elles x Paris Photo, which focused on female photographers. The aim was three-fold: to revisit the history of female photographers, to acquaint visitors with the feminists of the 1970s and to encourage interest in the new generation of promising female photographers.

Also visible at the fair was a strong presence of African photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Kaïta, together with prominent Japanese names like Nobuyoshi Araki and Hiroshi Sugimoto. On the opening day of Paris Photo, the Parisian office of Christie’s auctioned works by Sugimoto, realising €1.21m from 15 lots.

Sotheby’s offered a selection of rare vintage prints, with the top lot being Girl with a Leica by Aleksandr Rodchenko, which sold for $519,000.

Art events and sales in 2019 promise to be as exciting as the past year.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

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