Spring sees iconic art going under the auctioneer’s hammer

The art market has seen a flurry of high-profile sales as the spring auction season hots up. Chris Carter reports

L’empire des lumières by René Magritte
L’empire des lumières by René Magritte
(Image credit: © Sotheby’s)

The spring auction season has arrived. Last week saw a flurry of high-profile sales, including the debuts of three modern masterpieces. First up was Pablo Picasso’s La fenêtre ouverte at Christie’s in London. The surrealist piece portraying Picasso’s muse and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was painted on 22 November 1929, “in the midst of a heady moment of creativity”, according to Christie’s.

Picasso had met Walter just two years earlier. Forming part of the Atelier series of works, other examples reside in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, in Paris. In the painting, Walter had yet to take on the appearance displayed in so many of Picasso’s later works. But even so, the young woman’s profile and neat 1920s bob are recognisable. Picasso, who put himself in the painting too, is much less so. The artist takes the form of two large feet crossed with an arrow. La fenêtre ouverte fetched £16.3m on 1 March.

Later that same evening at Christie’s in London, Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1986-7 was also up for sale for the first time. A meditation on the passing of time and the solitude of the human condition, Bacon’s familiar format of three paintings together draws on events in 20th-century history and the artist’s own life and experiences. The left-hand panel was inspired by a photograph of US president Woodrow Wilson leaving the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919, the right by a photo of Leon Trotsky’s study taken after his assassination in 1940. And in the middle, a figure resembling John Edwards, Bacon’s partner at the time, in a similar pose to one struck by George Dyer, his former lover, who took his own life in 1971, and whom Bacon immortalised in Triptych August 1972, that now hangs in the Tate gallery, in London. Triptych 1986-7 sold for £38.5m, slightly above its low estimate.

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Several other big names also passed under the hammer that week. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Il Duce (1982), sold for ¥94.2m (£11.2m), again with Christie’s, but this time in Shanghai, underlining the growing importance of the Asian market. Back in London two days later, Self-Portrait on the Terrace (1984), by David Hockney, fetched £4.9m at Phillips. Singer Robbie Williams unloaded his two Banksy pieces, Girl with Balloon (2006) and Vandalised Oil (Choppers) (2006), for a combined £7m.

The stand-out sale of last week, however, went to yet another auction debutante: L’empire des lumières (1961), by Belgian surrealist René Magritte. The iconic work (pictured), one of 17 that form a series, contrasts day and night over a typical suburban house on a quiet street in Brussels. One possible inspiration for the piece is André Breton’s poem L’Aigrette, which opens: “If only the sun were to come out tonight”. It certainly came out for Sotheby’s in London that evening – the painting sold for £59.4m.

Luxury assets boom

Patek Philippe wristwatch reference 2499

(Image credit: © Phillips)

Collectables had a good year in 2021. According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2022, released last week, alternative investments in all classes rose as investors sought stability away from the volatility in stocks.

The Knight Frank Luxury Investment index (KFLII), which tracks ten classes of collectables, from classic cars and art to wine and whisky, rose 9% on the previous year in the strongest annual growth since 2018. Watches and fine wine were the best-performing luxury assets, both appreciating by 16%, no doubt helped along by the series of high-profile watch auctions held at Phillips towards the end of last year.

November, for example, saw the sales of an “extremely important” Patek Philippe wristwatch (pictured), reference 2499 from 1952 for CHF3.5m (£2.9m), and a repeating grande and petite sonnerie wristwatch made by Philippe Dufour, which sold for CHF4.7m (£3.9m). As for fine wine, Champagne was the fastest appreciating region, rising 31% from a year earlier, with the 2008 vintage in particular attracting investors. Burgundy also had a good year, rising in value by a quarter.

Art was the third highest riser in Knight Frank’s index. Sales rose 13% year-on-year, driven by artworks by “blue-chip” artists, such as Jackson Pollock, whose Number 17 fetched $61.2m. Of the big auction houses Sotheby’s led the way, racking up sales worth $7.3bn in 2021, followed close behind by Christie’s with $7.1bn. But a shift is underway. Last year also saw the rise of “ultra-contemporary ‘red-chip’” artists, who use social media to build their followings, says Veronika Lukasova of analysts Art Market Research. The craze for all things NFT (non-fungible tokens) is the most visible expression of this trend. Leading auction houses sold “crypto art” worth a total of $227m in 2021, and that trend looks set to continue.



Jewellery belonging to the late Vera Lynn is heading to the auction block with Toovey’s in West Sussex in aid of the singer’s charitable trust on 16 March. Lynn famously “captured the hearts of the nation during World War II with her uplifting musical performances and recordings”, says The Independent. She became known as the Forces’ Sweetheart for playing her part in rallying the troops as far away as Burma with the Entertainments National Service Association. Her family is now selling the rings, bracelets, necklaces, and brooches worn by Lynn to continue her charitable work. Headlining the sale is a large late-Victorian diamond-set heart-shape pendant locket pavé, set with cut diamonds and carrying a pre-sale estimate of between £7,000 and £10,000.


Amelia Earhart's flying cap

(Image credit: © Heritage Auctions)

The leather flying cap (pictured) worn by pioneering US pilot Amelia Earhart when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by aeroplane sold with Texas-based Heritage Auctions last week, says CNN. In 1928, Earhart had boarded the Fokker F.VIII “Friendship” piloted by Wilmer Stultz and Lou Gordon, as a passenger for the 21-hour journey between Newfoundland, in eastern Canada, and south Wales. Four years later, she would go on to make the journey alone. Then, in 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere over the Pacific when their ​​Lockheed L10 Electra ran out of fuel. Their whereabouts have remained a mystery ever since. Her legend, however, lives on, says Heritage. Her leather flying cap sold for $825,000, ten times its pre-sale estimate.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

You can follow Chris on Instagram.