Found on the easel in his studio at the time of his death, a captivating depiction of a nude figure by Gustav Klimt explores a new approach to colour and form, resulting in a masterpiece by an artist at the height of his powers. After a ten-minute bidding battle between four clients on the phones and in the room, the painting was sold by Sotheby’s for £85.3 million, setting a new auction record for a work of art in Europe, and also for Gustav Klimt. The result is also the second highest price for any portrait ever sold at auction.
Against the backdrop of a city-wide celebration of portraiture, heralded by the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery, the sale included a dedicated sequence of works surveying this genre through the ages, and placing the portrait centre stage. Face to Face presented a journey through more than 100 years of art history, celebrating not only the great masters of the 20th Century, but equally the innovators of the present day.
Tom Eddison, Senior Director of contemporary art, explains: “While the human image has been democratised in our age of iPhones and selfies, the tradition of portraiture runs deep and across many centuries”. Works by Lucian Freud, Kerry James Marshall and Leonor Fini displayed the breadth of creative dynamism in a discipline that has long captivated artists, from Rembrandt to Banksy.
Freud’s quiet and contemplative study of Penny Cuthbertson, Night Interior, sold for £9.6 million in its auction debut, whilst Jenny Saville’s Shadow Study reached £3.4 million. Previously held in the collections of two of the great art dealers of the 20th century, Aimé Maeght and Jan Krugier, Alberto Giacometti’s spirited bust of his brother Diego, Buste de Diego au col roulé, sold for £5.5 million, proving sculpture still packs a punch when offered at auction.
Other noteworthy results of the evening included Cy Twombly’s Untitled from the artist’s revered Blackboard series. The deeply expressive and energetic 1971 canvas, which marks a departure from the customary black and white – here rendering his iconic loops in umber and grey – hammered down for £8.9 million. Many comparable paintings are housed in renowned museum collections such as The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, demonstrating the calibre of works on offer in the sale.
Elsewhere, René Magritte’s Le Savoir achieved £4.1 million, and Frank Auerbach’s Mornington Crescent, part of Britain’s Visionaries: Masterpieces from a Distinguished Private Collection, rose to £5.6 million after a lively bidding battle on the phones. The three works by Auerbach surpassed their pre-sale estimates, with E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown VII selling for £4.5m and J.Y.M. Seated II achieving £1.1m.
The London evening sales reached a combined total of £199 million/$252.9 million. The sale series continued on Wednesday 28 June with the Modern and Contemporary Day Auction.