Mandatory Credit: Photo by JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10312632b)

Just as the art market began its hopeful wind-down to summer came the surprise news that Sotheby’s auction house had agreed its sale to BidFair USA, owned by the telecoms and media investor Patrick Drahi. The $3.7bn deal valued Sotheby’s shares at $57, a 61 per cent premium to their closing price on June 14. No management or strategic changes are on the cards, according to a statement from Drahi’s office.

Drahi, whose Forbes-estimated net worth is $9.3bn, is the founder and majority shareholder of the broadband group Altice. What exactly he wants with an art trading business remains to be seen, but the Franco-Israeli billionaire is, in his words, a “longtime client and lifetime admirer” of the firm. Plus some advanced technological knowhow can’t be a bad thing for a 275-year-old business.

Sotheby’s is the oldest firm on the New York Stock Exchange, where it has been listed — as BID — since 1988, but has never been entirely comfortable as a public company. It was committed to a level of scrutiny and transparency, including revealing its profits and outstanding guarantees, that its competitors (notably the privately owned Christie’s) could avoid. As a public company, Sotheby’s has also laid itself open to active and vocal investors, not least Third Point’s Daniel Loeb. Now, as chief executive Tad Smith said in a statement, Sotheby’s can operate “in a more flexible private environment”. Not great news for the information-hungry, but a good week for Sotheby’s shareholders — including Smith, whose holdings include some 500,000 performance-related and ordinary shares.

Kathrine and Cecilie Fredriksen, twin sisters and businesswomen who grew up in Norway, are to lend their collection of about 30 pieces of postwar and contemporary art to Oslo’s National Museum in its high-spec new home, which opens on the site of Oslo’s former Vestbanen train station in 2020.

Among the Fredriksen works on their way to the museum are pieces by Cecily Brown, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Bruce Nauman and Yayoi Kusama. Also included is Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Blanket Couple)” (2014), bought with the Oslo museum in mind for $4.3m at a Phillips auction last year. As part of the Fredriksen Partnership, their works will be displayed in a room named after their mother, the avid collector Inger Katharina Astrup Fredriksen, who died in 2006. The partnership will also fund a bi-annual commission for the museum’s planned 2,400 square-metre “Light Hall” and four PhD students at the University of Oslo.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled ( Blanket Couple) 2014 Courtesy of Fredriksen Family Collection
Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Untitled (Blanket Couple)’ (2014) © Fredriksen Family Collection

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern art auction started brightly on Tuesday but foundered soon after, turning in a weak total of £30.6m (£36.4m with fees, est £64.2m and £89.8m). The discrepancy, in an already slim sale, was mostly due to the fact that Fernand Léger’s “Femme dans un fauteuil” (1913), estimated between £25m and £30m, didn’t sell in a tired market.

Brighter spots included Pablo Picasso’s late “Homme et femme nus” (1968), offered by the same seller as the Léger but with a better result. This sold within estimate for £10.8m (£12.5m with fees) over the phone to an Asian bidder. The opening lot, Egon’s Schiele’s enticing (but not too racy) watercolour, “Liegender Mädchenakt” (1909), sold for more than three times its high estimate at £1.1m (£1.3m with fees), while a Francis Picabia oil that once belonged to Andy Warhol, “Monstre” (1946), went for a within estimate £400,000 (£491,250 with fees).

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Le Peintre signed ‘Picasso’ (lower right); dated and numbered ‘25.3.67. II’ (on the reverse) oil on canvas 39 ½ x 31 ½ in. (100.2 x 80 cm.) Painted in Mougins on 25 March 1967 Estimate: GBP 1,500,000 - GBP 2,000,000 Price realized GBP 2,111,250
‘Le Peintre’ (1967) by Pablo Picasso, sold at Christie’s for £2.1m

The mood was brighter at Sotheby’s equivalent sale on Wednesday — and not just because of its staff’s share options. Its auction of better-sourced and fresh-to-market material made a total £84.8m (£98.9m with fees), though this was still just below its presale estimate of £87.5m to £126.3m. While the sell-through rate of 92 per cent was impressive, this was from only 25 fielded lots, many of which sold on just one bid in this narrow market. These included the top lot of the week, Claude Monet’s square-format “Nymphéas” (1908), latterly backed by a third-party guarantor who took the work through a specialist for £21m (£23.7m with fees, est £25m-£35m). The evening’s other hit work — a 1918 painting of a young boy by Amedeo Modigliani — slowly attracted a couple more bids than the Monet, selling at its low estimate of £16m (£18.4m with fees).

Buyers sought out the relative value of Surrealist works, just as they had at Christie’s the previous evening, notably Joan Miró’s vibrant “Peinture (L’Air)” (1938) for a within-estimate £10.4m (£12m with fees, third-party guarantee) and René Magritte’s ombré “La magie noir” (1946) which sold at its high estimate of £3.5m (£4.2m with fees).

New York dealer Paul Kasmin has spotted an art market trend that chimes with his current exhibition of photographs by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi: works by major artists in an atypical medium. Last month, a 1962 earthenware pitcher by Marc Chagall, primarily known as a painter, sold above estimate at Christie’s New York for $447,000 (with fees), while on June 25 a 2009 tapestry by Gerhard Richter, based on his abstract paintings, comes to Christie’s London estimated at £700,000-£1m.

The vast price difference between the media plays a part. “There are only about five or six people who can pay, say, $60m for one of [Brancusi’s] lifetime sculptures,” Kasmin notes. In contrast, the 25 vintage photographs (1909-1943) on show are priced between $125,000 and $400,000. Most are photographs of his sculptures, including self-portraits of the artist working in his studio, and are rare sightings on the market: “You’re unlikely to see more than four a year,” Kasmin adds. Brancusi: The Photographer runs until June 29.

Six of South Africa’s leading galleries, including Blank Projects, Goodman Gallery and Stevenson, have pulled out of the FNB JoburgArtFair, due for its 11th edition in September. Instead they are supporting the fair’s sale by the event organiser Artlogic to Mandla Sibeko, who left as its director earlier this year. Sponsor First National Bank has agreed to switch its support to the new event.

“This opportunity comes with a great responsibility to uphold a standard that reflects the quality of our African artists,” Sibeko says. Ross Douglas, founder and former director of the fair and a shareholder of Artlogic, says he is “delighted” that Sibeko is buying the fair. “This is the first art entity to be transformed from white to black ownership in South Africa,” he says. The new event has been rebranded (spot the difference) as FNB Art Joburg.

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