No sign of ‘Brexit blues’ in booming London art market

Ten highlights from the summer auctions

There’s no sign of “Brexit blues” in the London art market which continues to boom. The summer season of auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams realised hundreds of millions of pounds, with some spectacular prices achieved, new records for individual artists established and a notable increase in online viewing and bidding. Here are 10 highlights from the London art auctions of summer 2017.

1, A Guinness Guardi

Is there no end to the Guinness family treasures? Over the past century the dynasty has sold enough art and antiques to fill half a dozen museums. And still they come. At Christie's a Francesco Guardi painting of Venice, The Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo Dei Camerlenghi, sold for £26.2 million (€29.3m) (no estimate supplied), the highest price achieved for an "Old Master" painting at auction so far in 2017. The painting, regarded as a masterpiece of 18th-century European art, was acquired in 1891 by the renowned art collector, Clontarf-born Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh and chairman of the brewing company whose Dublin homes included Iveagh House and Farmleigh. The painting was not hung in Ireland but instead was displayed for decades in Pyrford Court, Surrey, where his son Rupert Guinness, Second Earl of Iveagh, lived until the 1960s.

2, King Kandinsky


The auction record for Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian artist who died in 1944, was broken twice in one night at Sotheby's. First to go under the hammer was Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus (Murnau – Landscape with Green House) dated 1909, and described as "a major Expressionist painting of blazing colour" that sold for £21 million (€23.5m) (within the estimate of £15m–£25m) and created a new record price for the artist at auction. But the record lasted just a few minutes; Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines) dated 1913, and described as "a profoundly important work that hails from a landmark moment that fundamentally changed the way art was conceived and understood, [that] reveals the artist's discovery that colour could become the principal subject of a painting", sold for £33 million (€36.9m). The estimate had been unpublished.

3, The world’s first selfie?

Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait, 1963-64 sold at Sotheby's for £6 million (€6.7m) (within the estimate of £5m–£7m). From Warhol's very first sequence of self-portraits, and created using images from a photo booth, it was described as "effectively the artist's first-ever selfie" and was appearing at auction for the first time – 30 years after the artist's death in 1987. James Sevier, a specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby's said "in the age of Instagram, Warhol's fabled prediction that 'in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes' has never felt more prophetic, and the artist's first self-portraits – created using a strip of photographs taken in a New York dime store photo-booth – have never felt more relevant to contemporary culture".

4, Expensive Freudian strawberries

A still-life painting of life-size, "Strawberries", painted in 1950 by English artist Lucian Freud, sold for £1.2 million at Sotheby's, which pointed out that this was £120,000 a strawberry. The price was a record for a still-life by the artist who is better known for his big, fleshy nudes. Sotheby's said Freud's still-lifes illustrate his "passion for Old Masters, for which he was dubbed 'the contemporary Old Master'." The artist was given 24-hour access to London's National Gallery "so he could roam the galleries after midnight with his models and friends, or alone with his easel" seeking inspiration. "Strawberries" was given as a gift to his patron Ann, Lady Rothermere, (then wife of the proprietor of the Daily Mail) who later divorced and married the novelist Ian Fleming of James Bond fame. Two years ago a similarly tiny painting by Freud. Four Eggs on a Plate, which he had given as a gift to the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, sold for just under £1 million also at Sotheby's.

5, Turner in Germany

A major painting by the great English landscape artist JMW Turner entitled Ehrenbreitstein sold for £19 million (€21.3m) at Sotheby's. No estimate had been published. The oil-on-canvas, dating from 1835, is regarded as one the best by the artist remaining in private hands – the rest hang in the world's leading museums. The painting depicts the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz in Germany. Turner's watercolours, including views of Germany, draw crowds to the National Gallery of Ireland every January. Sotheby's said Turner is "widely regarded as Britain's foremost artist, whose unprecedented style not only had a profound and lasting impact on British art". Major paintings by him rarely appear on the market, and the last example to be offered, also in Sotheby's three years ago, was Rome, from Mount Aventine, which sold for £30.3 million (€33.9m), the highest price ever achieved for any British-born artist at auction.

6, Picasso’s lover

A painting by Pablo Picasso, Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse), sold for £34.9 million (€39m) at Christie's, within its estimate of £25m–£40m. Painted on March 26th, 1934, it was described as "a joyous, colour-filled and deeply personal portrayal of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the young, blond-haired woman who, when she entered the artist's life in January 1927, influenced the course of his art in an unprecedented manner". Picasso painted numerous portraits of his lover – this one apparently depicts her "enthroned in an ornate brown leather studded chair, pictured in the midst of writing a letter... seated in front of what appears to be a window, the daylight and pale blue sky of the outside world flooding into the secluded room in which she writes and illuminating her delicate features". It was made in Boisgeloup, a chateau situated near Gisors, a Normandy village northwest of Paris, that Picasso had bought in the summer of 1930.

7, Van Gogh’s not-so-grim reaper

Van Gogh's Le Moissonneur (d'après Millet) sold at Christie's for £24.2 million (€27.1m), way above its estimate (£12.5m–£16.5m). It was painted in 1889, the same year that Van Gogh left Arles in the south of France and admitted himself into an asylum. It's one of 10 paintings that Van Gogh made after a series of drawings by the French artist Jean-François Millet entitled Les Travaux des Champs (1852), seven of which are now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the rest in private hands. "Moissonneur" is the French word for reaper/harvester. Le Moissonneur (d'après Millet), like the Frenchman's original on which it is based, depicts a reaper at work, sweeping his scythe and illuminated against the deep blue sky and golden yellow fields. It was one of the first paintings that Van Gogh made in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he was recovering after famously cutting off part of his ear and suffering a nervous breakdown.

8, A drawing worth millions

Drawings rarely make millions, but then Canaletto was no ordinary artist. The 18th century Venetian painter was renowned for depicting his native city Venice, and many of his most important paintings are in the British Royal Collection. But at Sotheby's one of his drawings, The Coronation of the Doge on the Scala dei Giganti, sold for £2.6 million (€2.9m) (within the estimate of £2.5m–£3.5m). The price was a new record for a drawing by Canaletto, and, according to Sotheby's, was "a fitting testimony to its importance and its quality. Nothing like it has been seen at auction. A more total expression of the essence of Canaletto's genius as a draughtsman than this extraordinary drawing, which transports us to the very heart of 18th century Venice, in all its glory, wit and mystery, is hard to imagine". The Coronation of the Doge on the Scala dei Giganti is one of 12 depictions of the ceremonies and festivals of the doges, the Feste Ducali. A "doge" was the title given to the leader of the Republic of Venice, and in this drawing the doge is being crowned at the top of the Scala dei Giganti, the grand, ceremonial staircase that forms the focus of the courtyard of the doge's palace.

9, A well-dressed man

William Larkin's Portrait of Thomas Pope, later 3rd Earl of Downe, sold at Bonhams sale of Old Masters for £449,000 (€502,000), 10 times its estimate (£40,000–£60,000). Little is known about the artist William Larkin, who was a painter in early 17th-century London, but around 40 of his paintings from between 1609 and 1619 survive. While the sitter (a minor aristocrat) may not be historically significant the painting is an important example of Jacobean English portraiture. Larkin is best known for his wonderful depictions of the amazing clothes worn by aristocrats at the time – in this case Pope, of Wroxton Abbey, near Banbury in Warwickshire, is shown wearing a white tunic embroidered with gold and a yellow lace collar. Bonhams' director of Old Master paintings, Andrew McKenzie, said: "Having spent much of its life at Wroxton Abbey, William Larkin's magnificent Portrait of Thomas Pope is unusually well preserved. The paint layer, particularly on the exquisite lace, retains its textured surface some 400 years after it was painted. Such good condition is rare for something of this age. I am not surprised it attracted very keen bidding nor that it achieved such a wonderful result."

10, An ancient Egyptian 'egg-head' priest

It wasn’t all about paintings. One of the most interesting lots in the London summer art auctions – and surely the oldest – was an ancient Egyptian granite head of a priest that sold at Bonhams’ antiquities sale for £137,000 (€153,000) – above the estimate of £60,000-£80,0000. It dates from circa 610-525 BC, the 26th dynasty or the so-called Saite Period (named as the capital was at this time in the city of Sais in the Nile delta), a time of great prosperity, stability and artistic endeavour. The head lot belongs to a category of sculptures, often referred to as the “egg-head” type. They depict priests of religious cults, instantly recognisable by their shaven heads. Bonhams said “the black stone used here was clearly carefully selected, and the sculptor made sensitive use of the pink, speckled part of the material, incorporating it into the back of the head, leaving the face uncompromised by the change in colour”.