2023 In Review: Specialists Look Back on Picasso’s Anniversary, Freddie Mercury and More

2023 In Review: Specialists Look Back on Picasso’s Anniversary, Freddie Mercury and More

As we prepare to consign 2023 to history, we asked five Sotheby’s specialists from around the world to reflect on their own personal moments and highlights of the passing year .
As we prepare to consign 2023 to history, we asked five Sotheby’s specialists from around the world to reflect on their own personal moments and highlights of the passing year .

Brooke Lampley: A Year of Picasso, Paris, Pauline Karpidas and More!

Brooke Lampley is Global Chairman and Head of Global Fine Art at Sotheby’s. She is also the person who placed the winning bid on the historic sale of Picasso’s ‘Femme à la montre’ (1932) in New York this November, which achieved the second highest result ever, for a work by Picasso at auction.

Brooke Lampley places the winning bid for Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femme à la Montre’ – the second-most expensive Picasso ever sold. Achieving $139.4 million in New York, it was the most valuable artwork auctioned this year.

Well, for me, wielding the bid on the second highest selling Picasso (Femme à la montre) of all time was very exciting. That was a nail biter!

But so much has happened this year. I think 2023 has been a year where, more than ever, the art market has been robustly busy, every single week of the calendar. Personally, I feel that I used to have a seasonal job; now I feel that I have a 24/7 job, all year round. We are privileged to offer extraordinary art and objects to the market pretty much every day of the year.

Then there was October in Paris, during Paris+ week. There was an incredible slate of exhibitions, and that density of experience with great art is so enriching. From the Rothko show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton to the Van Gogh show at the Musée d’Orsay, to the Modigliani show at the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris in October was really a high point of the year for me.

“The passion for the presentation of collections is greater than ever before, and we really leaned into that in 2023.”
- Brooke Lampley

But really, 2023 at Sotheby’s was the year of collections. This year, we reached a new peak of interest in not just artworks, but in people’s collecting history, the formation of taste and clients seeking to understand from examples. The passion for the presentation of collections is greater than ever before, and we really leaned into that in 2023 with collections as diverse as Mo Ostin, Chara Shreyer, Emily Fisher-Landau, John Cheim, Freddie Mercury and Pauline Karpidas from Hydra.

The Hydra Collection of Pauline Karpidas, one of the portfolio of collections by women collectors, sold this year at Sotheby's

And while it’s always been our job to present the story as much as the object, we try to faithfully present not just the works but also the history of the works. It’s rewarding to see how interest in collectors’ stories has grown to such a degree – how and when works or objects were acquired, and the meaning of the acquisition at those times.

So there’s a greater desire than ever before to understand the human context around the collecting journey. It’s a form of education; people are no longer seeing collecting as just an art-historical pursuit. There’s increasingly a focus on the art of collecting – where the inspiration for collecting comes from and how people form their methodologies. I think there’s a growing realization that there are many ways to orient yourself as a collector. We see people are looking for more and more examples of how to do that.

“Looking ahead… I would expect interest in digital and AI generative art to rebound in the future.”
- Brooke Lampley

Looking ahead, I feel there’s a real curiosity around what the next trends will be. While there’s been a bit of a cooling in the market for digital art, I would expect interest in digital and AI generative art to rebound in the future at some point.

We’ve seen very strong market trends towards recognizing the value of African American art and female artists, and I think that will persist too. Sotheby’s is positioned at the forefront of selling work from female collectors. With such names as Ginny Williams, Chara Shreyer and Emily Fisher-Landau, we’ve leaned into celebrating their vision of art. And I think we’ll continue to see these trends expressed in the collections that come to us.


Helena Newman: Taking the Record Breaking Sale of ‘Lady With Fan’

Helena Newman is the Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Worldwide Head of Impressionist & Modern Art and Auctioneer. Here, she reflects on the record-breaking moment she sold Gustav Klimt’s ‘Dame mit Fächer’ (Lady with a Fan) in London for £85,305,800 ($108,000,000) in June.

Helena Newman on the podium with Gustav Klimt’s Lady With A Fan, London, 27 June 2023 (Photograph: Haydon Perrior)

My highlight of the year? I’ve got a very obvious one, which was the Klimt (Dame mit Fächer or “Lady with a Fan”). It was an exciting moment for me. I love taking big marquee auctions – they are thrilling in many ways – but this one was an absolute career highlight, and certainly my highlight of the year.

Lady with a Fan is a painting very dear to my heart. I remember when we sold it the first time around at Sotheby’s in 1994. Klimt is one of the artists who, together with the Austrian and German expressionists, I feel very close to. This painting was the last painting Klimt did; it was still on his easel when he died. It has that sense of creativity in full flow, cut short. Then as an actual image, it is so Klimt, with the use of Japanese motifs, the Secessionist layering of patterns, the female subject – in this case, an unknown sitter – the square format that made it so modern, the blending of figure and background… All these influences come together here, from the Viennese Secession, with the Eastern touches – all of which makes it very iconic, very signature Klimt. It was superbly rendered, with a kind of exquisite shimmering detail that is very evocative.

And so in that sense, when you look at the image – even if you've never seen the painting before; it came from a private collection – it is instantly recognizable as Klimt, and a very beautiful example.

In the days leading up to the sale, there was a lot of anticipation. From the moment we announced it, people were captivated; it rendered really beautifully on social media and on our videos. Klimt is an artist who has amazing resonance across the world – he sits in that rarefied group alongside Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani and other 20th-century figurative artists. Going into the sale, we thought it would do well, but it went even better than I could possibly have dreamt – first topping $100 million, and then making $108 million all in.

The sale set a new benchmark price for the artist – and the record for any work ever sold at auction outside of New York. It was an affirmation of London as a global hub and a magnet for collectors. It was a real highlight of the summer season, which is always a great time in London, so it was a very exciting time – and of course, it was thrilling to take the auction. The excitement also came from having really determined competition, between four bidders, with the final two battling it out. For me, was incredible to be fielding that level of competition. The eventual buyer, an Asian collector, was represented in the room by Patty Wong, our former chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.

“When you take an auction, it’s all about timing and pace – especially with these very high value lots.”
- Helena Newman

When you take an auction, it’s all about timing and pace – especially with these very high value lots. You must know when to go slow, when to speed up or when you need to urge bidders along. I bring my musical background into that, to keep the energy and momentum in the room; you need the skill to be able to pace things and to make judgments around timing. It’s a performance, and it brings in all those elements needed for performance – channelling the adrenaline, excitement and energy, which in turn brings the audience in. It has many musical aspects; how you modulate your voice, use rhythm, pacing, dialogue and dramatic pauses to command and cajole the room. And these days, it goes beyond the physical room; it’s the cameras and online as well. It’s about being able to create a space where everyone is involved.

Helena Newman on the rostrum

And obviously, there’s a huge amount of technical preparation – the preparation around interest levels, bidding levels and who’s going to be on the phone or where the reserve is set. The physical aspect is key too – your posture, your breath, your voice. And then there’s the mental preparation, being psyched-up beforehand. When those three elements – the technical, the physical and mental – all fuse together, that’s when you create that magic. Which is exactly what you hope for in a live auction – that magic with the potential for something unexpected to happen that is even better than you might possibly imagine!

And obviously there’s a huge amount of technical preparation around interest levels, bidding levels and who’s going to be on the phone or where the reserve is set. The physical aspect is key too – your posture, your breath, your voice. And then there’s the mental preparation, being psyched up beforehand. When those three elements – the technical, the physical and mental – all fuse together, that’s when you create that magic and something unexpected can happen beyond what you might have imagined!


David Macdonald: ‘Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own’

David Macdonald is a Senior Specialist in English Furniture, Head of Scotland and Single Owner Sales. This year, Macdonald and his team masterminded possibly one of the most memorable moments in Sotheby’s recent history, with “Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own” – a global exhibition and series of auctions in September. The event attracted nearly 50,000 visitors to Sotheby’s London galleries for an exhibition that thrillingly recreated Freddie Mercury’s beloved home, before a series of auctions achieved an incredible result of £40 million.

David Macdonald (right) with Henry House (Senior International Specialist, English & European Furniture)

The Freddie Mercury sales were an extraordinary moment in our company’s history. People will talk about them for a long time. When you recall the great sales that Sotheby’s has done over the years, such as Napoleon Bonaparte’s library or the Windsor sale in New York, this easily comparable in terms of outreach and imagination – not just in the UK but globally.

Watch the moment auctioneer Oliver Barker sells the manuscript draft of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the “Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own, The Evening Sale,” in London, 6 September 2023.

I’ve always felt there’s a huge element of theatre in what we do at Sotheby’s. The very nature of an auction, even online, has drama, tension and emotion. Freddie was almost the perfect vehicle here, as we could really present him and his life, the things he chose to have around him as set dressing. It was amazing to be a part of that. Also, personally, there was the experience of encountering new clients who adored Freddie. They were all so kind and so moved by what we were trying to do; it was very special to meet the people who came to the exhibition in their thousands, as well as to the auctions themselves.

“It was such a newsworthy moment! Freddie was being talked about everywhere this summer.”
David Macdonald

And it was such a newsworthy moment! Freddie was being talked about everywhere this summer. I think there were thousands of articles globally about Sotheby’s and the sale. A palpable buzz was in the air.

Behind the scenes at Sotheby's as staff and guests reflect on the enduring magic of the one and only Freddie Mercury

What was my favourite item of Freddie’s from the sales? Ha, good question! There were some drawings that he had done at art college to try and get work as a graphic designer, like sketches for Cusson’s Imperial Leather soap ads. And those are so interesting, because if he’d gone in that direction then those drawings would never have been sold – they would have belonged to a talented graphic designer, and that would have been it. So looking at those drawings now, they signpost what path he chose to take, what could have been. As we know now, the world was much richer for the path that he did choose.

Crowds queue outside Sotheby’s on New Bond Street to visit the Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own in August 2023 lara arnott/lara arnott

There’s a phrase that used to be on the front of Sotheby’s catalogues for hundreds of years. It described Sotheby’s as being “auctioneers of literary property and works illustrated of the fine arts.” And that really encompasses the breadth of the Mercury project, if you consider the lyrics we sold as being “literary property” – even though it’s not a first folio by Shakespeare, but the working manuscript to a famous piece of music. And the “works illustrated of the fine arts” being Freddie’s early drawings, pieces produced by a struggling artist at art college, who went on to become a very different kind of artist. That ancient strapline sums up the very core of Sotheby’s. 


Nicolas Chow: Celebrating 50 Years of Sotheby's in Asia

Nicolas Chow is Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and Worldwide Head of Asian Art. This year, his department led the way in commemorating Sotheby’s half-century in Hong Kong and oversaw a broad range of exciting sales that demonstrated, 50 years after launching in the region, the eminent reputation and deep connections Sotheby's has built.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby's Asia and Worldwide Head of Asian Art

What was really exciting in our 50th anniversary year in Hong Kong was the choice of property we sold and some of the collections we presented that really represent our story here over the last 50 years. We had many star lots both in spring and autumn: items either connected to our story – lots we had sold in the past – or from collectors who are, I would say, indelibly associated with us.

For example, one of our main star lots in the spring was Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, a superb gold-ground screen by Zhang Daqian, one of the greatest Chinese painters of the 20th century. He’s known for his splashing technique, a very abstract approach to painting, using Chinese ink. The property was painted in 1973, the very year that we opened in Asia, and it had not been seen on the market for 50 years. So to bring this piece of great importance and freshness to sale, with its history, was one of the greatest moments of the year for me. We honoured the legacy of our early years, with auctions that were incredibly strong in traditional Chinese art, such as ink paintings.

“We honoured the legacy of our early years, with auctions that were incredibly strong in traditional Chinese art, such as ink paintings.”
- Nicolas Chow

When we started our sales in Hong Kong in 1973, the rock on which they were built was Chinese art. In the years since, many new categories have been added. Now, of course, we also sell handbags, cars, modern and contemporary art, as well as a great variety of property. But in the first part of this year, we were definitely celebrating those early categories upon which the reputation of Sotheby’s Asia was built. For example, our sale of a blue and white wine ewer with a dragon design, from the celebrated T Y Chao Collection was truly an example of work from one of the great collections. In fact, we had previously sold this item in Hong Kong in 1986, and it hasn’t resurfaced since.

So, our thanks to all our clients in Chinese art, with whom we were able to deliver a nine-year high for our categories. It’s a great testament to the history of Southeast Asia and the support of our clients who have been so critical in shaping our destiny in this part of the world.


Mario Tavella: A Year Of Prestigious Collections

Mario Tavella is the Président, Sotheby's France and Chairman, Europe. This year Mario and his team in Paris marked the second-best year for Sotheby’s France, led by a number of exceptional collections redefining Sotheby’s position as market leaders for exquisite art, antiques and objects.

Mario Tavella, President Sotheby's France, Chairman Europe Micha Patault

This was the second-best year ever for Sotheby’s France, in terms of sales. And one of the highlights was the Collection Hubert Guerrand-Hermès, five consecutive white-glove sales during December, with 900 lots from the heir to the famous Hermes dynasty - an eclectic series of sales spanning many categories. The overall low estimate was EUR9 million, and we made EUR32 million, including commission - absolutely a huge success, with many French museums participating in the sales. One especial highlight was a Louis XVI gilt walnut chair stamped by Georges Jacob, from circa 1784-1785, for the boudoir of queen Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. This made a world record price, selling for EUR2,589,000.

So, we’re proud because France has sold the two of the most prestigious collections this year of any auction house in France. One was that of Guerrand-Hermès, and the other the collection of Pauline Karpidas in Hydra, which in terms of value, was slightly higher than Hermes, making almost EUR36 million.

"Sothebys France remains the reference for major collections"

As well as these collections, we had Trésor Retrouvé, the fourth standalone sale from the Collection of Claude & François Xavier Lalanne and another very successful sale, Intemporel, from the collection of Jacques Garcia. With this sale, we started at a very high estimate and nevertheless, succeeded. Jacques Garcia had aimed to secure EUR10 million for the future of the Château du Champ-de-Bataille, which is a very honourable thing, as it’s the preservation of one of the most important sites in France. So, Sothebys France remains the reference for major collections.

My personal highlight of 2023 was the Guerrand Hermès sales. This was an estate I had been waiting to deal with, since the death of Hubert seven years ago - it was competitive, but we won it. So, I wanted to have this success for his family and Sothebys to end the year on a high note, because it has been a very demanding year. But we had fun and of course, it was hard work, to sell every one of those 900 lots, but it was a wonderful exercise. So if there was one baby I would nominate as my highlight of the year, it would be this Hermès sale.

2023 In Review

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