Certain auctions are etched in one’s memory for years to come. Some of those auctions inevitably are tied to the history of the Polish art market due to record sales, unorthodox objects and surprising twists and turns.
Juliusz Windorbski, CEO of DESA Unicum auction house, provides insight into the world of art and auctions. In his article for Contemporary Lynx Magazine, he discusses some of the most exciting auction events in recent history.
Banksy at Sotheby’s, 5 October 2018
The crowds following the auction were astounded by the unexpected turn of events. Although Banksy gained notoriety for his unconventional happenings, the thought that the piece would be shredded immediately after the hammer came down on the item never even crossed anyone’s mind. The mechanism built into the painting’s frame was activated when the sale was made official. The picture posted on Instagram by Banksy himself features astonished buyers alongside his half-shredded artwork. Ultimately the painting of “Girl with a Balloon” fetched $1,4m. Seconds after the stunt the value of the canvas obviously skyrocketed. It was an unprecedented event in the history of the art market.
“Salvador Mundi” at Christie’s, 15 November 2017
In 2017, Christie’s New York made history with the astronomical sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvador Mundi” totaling over $450m, setting the world record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. The painting disappeared in the 18th century and was deemed irretrievably lost until the early 20th century. Francis Cook, an English art collector, purchased the piece in 1900 without even knowing the artist’s name. Cook’s heirs sold the deeply damaged painting for merely £45. Who would’ve thought they came across the original artwork created by the Renaissance Master? What were the odds? Inconceivable. Since the 1960s, the painting was bought and sold multiple times over. Upon the confirmation of its provenance, the piece racked up the price of first $80m, then $127m until it reached almost half a billion dollars. What an unbelievable story.
AI generated artwork, “Prints & Multiples” at Christie’s, 23-25 October 2018
There’s no reason why this painting sold at auction for over $432,000 should make headlines. However, if we happened to mention the fact that it was the first AI generated artwork in history which went under the hammer, then we’ve got another market-shattering event on our hands. Created by the French collective Obvious, the piece was auctioned at Christie’s Paris branch. The intention of Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier was to prove that artificial intelligence can display creativity which would shock the crowds. Well, they certainly succeeded. The final price of “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was definitely unexpected since its pre-estimated value equaled only $7,000-10,000.
“English Literature, History, Science, Children’s Books and Illustrations” at Sotheby’s, 9-10 July 2018
One piece during the auction “English Literature, History, Science, Children’s Books and Illustrations” at Sotheby’s London fetched the price of £430,000 (approximately 2,000 000 PLN)… and it was the map of the Hundred Acre Wood. The price doesn’t really surprise me. The illustration was created by the English painter – Ernest H. Shepard, whereas the map itself isn’t entirely fictional. Its layout bears a striking resemblance to the cartography of the forest in East Sussex county, where Shepard lived until the year 1925. Interestingly enough, the piece was expected to sell for three times less. Four other illustrations from Winnie-the-Pooh were also sold at the auction. The total result for Shepard’s sketches amounted to £917,500 (almost $1,2m).
“Auction of Titanic, Liner and Transport Memorabilia,” Henry Aldridge & Son Ltd, 19 October 2013
The objects retrieved from the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic always cost fortunes. In James Cameron’s movie, the ship is sinking into the ocean while the musicians keep playing “Nearer My God, to Thee.” The orchestra did carry on until the end, in fact. The bandmaster’s name was Wallace Hartley. The violin was discovered when the musician’s body was pulled from the water. The instrument was sold at auction for £1,7m a couple of years ago. The fact that the violin survived until this day seems like a miracle, it was passed on for generations. Originally, Harley’s fiancée owned the violin. After she died in 1939, the instrument was donated to the Salvation Army that presented it to one of its members and a violin teacher. The violin teacher gave it to his pupil who gave it to her son who finally put it up for sale after many years. The instrument was proved as authentic after some professional, quite expensive, tests lasting seven years in total.
These types of auctions just never happen. No wonder the auction of a Rolls-Royce formerly belonging to Queen Elizabeth II attracted an enormous interest. The vehicle was sold for £800,000. Rolls-Royce Phantom IV State Landaulette, which was used by HM the Queen during state celebrations, has completed over 40 years in service for the royal family. It’s identical to the car in which Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was driven on the day of her wedding. Only eighteen of these models exist in the world. All of them were purchased by global dignitaries and heads of state. Whereas the first wheelchair used by Stephen Hawking for almost 30 years was sold at the online auction held by Christie’s. The price reached almost £300,000. The legend has it that Hawking used it to deliberately run over Prince Charles’ toes. Who knows? Maybe it affected the price.
“The David Gilmour Guitar Collection” at Christie’s, 20 April 2019
The largest sale of musical instruments ever offered at auction was orchestrated by Christie’s New York – over 120 guitars from the collection of David Gilmour, the British musician and Pink Floyd’s member, went under the hammer. ‘The Black Strat’ stirred up particularly strong emotions since it is the instrument that created the sound of Pink Floyd. You can hear it on the band’s greatest hits, such as “The Dark Side of the Moon”, “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall”. After multiple modifications and customized adjustments, ‘The Black Strat’ became the iconic instrument associated exclusively with David Gilmour in the last fifty years. The exorbitant auction price for the guitar was to be expected. It realized almost 4 million dollars, shattering the record for the largest sum collected for the guitar item in history. In total, the instrument collection sold for over 21 million dollars. The artist donated all proceeds from the auction to the environmental organization combating the global climate crisis. Prior to the auction, the collection was put on display in London and Los Angeles.
“Modern and Contemporary Sculpture” at DESA Unicum, 29 October 2019
The Polish art market is also rife with surprising and historic auction moments. Last year’s auctions are certainly worth the mention. Emotions ran particularly high at the “Modern and Contemporary Sculpture” auction that broke two records of the Polish art market, one immediately after the other. The turn of events was truly unprecedented in the art scene in Poland. First, Antonio Canovy’s sculpture “Dancer With a Finger on the Chin” set the record with its final price totaling 5,700,000 PLN – not for long though. Only a few minutes later, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Caminando” was sold for over 8,000,000 PLN, the highest record-breaking price for any work of art ever auctioned in Poland. Notably, the installation previously belonged to the art collection of the famous actor Robin Williams and his wife Marsha.
“Collection of Anda Rottenberg. Post-War and Contemporary Art” at DESA Unicum, 4 April 2017
Auctioning works of art placed in private art collections can take genuinely unexpected turns. Some of those pieces are often shrouded in mystery. Anda Rottenberg is an extraordinary curator, art critic and former director of Zachęta, one of the most renowned art galleries in Poland. The auction of ninety objects from her own collection, which took place at DESA Unicum on April 4, 2017, included for instance Joanna Rajkowska’s art installation from the series “Satisfaction Guaranteed”, the fridge with 51 cans filled with the artist’s bodily fluids. In one of the interviews, Rottenberg mentioned that the piece was stored for a long time in her daughter’s own apartment. The curator amassed her rich art collection almost organically, as a result of her enduring personal connections with artists. That’s why this auction turned out to be so exceptional. Two pieces by Mirosław Bałka, Rottenberg’s long-time friend, were also presented at the auction – “She Dog” from the series “Salt Seller” was sold for 240,000 PLN. Other artists included Henryk Stażewski, Jarosław Modzelewski and Teresa Murak.
Works of Art Painted on Platters, “Post-War and Contemporary Art. Jan Styczyński Collection” at DESA Unicum, 22 November 2016
Jan Styczyński, a photographer, wished to serve art on a silver platter to anyone. Quite literally. In 1958, he asked his friend and painter, Jan Lebenstein, to pain a picture on a ceramic bowl. Captivated by the result, he decided to approach other artists with the same proposition: he would take their pictures in exchange for hand-painted plates. Styczyński manufactured the platters on his own because paint peeled off the glazed surfaces. Unique paintings commissioned by Styczyński were created by the artists such as Henryk Stażewski, Jan Tarasin, Jerzy Tchórzewski, Stefan Gierowski, Teresa Pągowska and Erna Rosenstein. DESA Unicum staged the auction of the collected objects in November, 2016. The auction turnover amounted to 1,600,000 PLN in total.
Written by Juliusz Windorbski