Painting of a woman whose robe is slipping off her shoulder against a background of yellow wallpaper with peacocks
‘Dame mit Fächer’ (Lady with a Fan) by Gustav Klimt at Sotheby’s, estimated to sell for £65mn

When London’s auctioneers were planning their summer sales, the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery was clearly a collective cornerstone. Hot on the heels of the museum’s unveiling on June 22, the end-of-month auction season is putting portraiture to the fore.

“Portraiture is such a historic genre, yet it also feels very timely as a way of looking at ourselves and wider society,” says Tom Eddison, senior specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby’s in London. As well as hosting the loan exhibition Portraits from Chatsworth (to July 4) — showing examples from Rembrandt to Lucian Freud — the house is focusing on portraits in its Modern and contemporary evening auction on June 27.

The top lot is a real conversation piece: Gustav Klimt’s “Dame mit Fächer” (Lady with a Fan), which has an estimate in the region of £65mn, putting it in the running to make a record price for a work of art at auction in Europe. (The title is held by Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man I”, sold by Sotheby’s London in 2010 for £65mn) It’s “an alluring and wonderfully enigmatic portrait”, says Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chair, Europe. Against a vibrant patterned background, “Klimt lets the kimono drape off [the sitter’s] naked shoulder and uses the fan in an incredibly seductive way, to both hide and reveal. It’s his last great masterpiece,” she adds. In fact, the canvas was on the artist’s easel when he died in 1918, at the age of 55.

Metal bust but the man’s head is narrow
Bust of Diego Giacometti (1951) by Alberto Giacometti at Sotheby’s

The same sale features a dedicated selection of portraits titled “Face to Face”. It includes a full-length portrait by Edvard Munch in 1885 of his friend Karl Jensen-Hjell (estimate £2.5-£3.5mn) — “a really important, much-discussed early work” which marked a turning point in his Impressionist style, says Thomas Boyd-Bowman, head of Impressionist and Modern art evening sales in London. “Munch is one of those artists who just continues to grow his global stature.” Another star on offer is a 1951 painted bronze bust by Alberto Giacometti of his brother, Diego (£4mn-£6mn).

‘Untitled (Woman Looking Left)’ (2016) by Kerry James Marshall at Sotheby’s

Kerry James Marshall’s 2016 painting “Untitled (Woman Looking Left)” (£2.8mn-£4.5mn) is a contemporary example strikingly relevant in its exploration of black identity, critiquing the marginalisation of black figures within western art history. “We also have a fantastic portrait of Angela Merkel by Elizabeth Peyton — probably one of the most influential artists in contemporary portraiture, who really draws on the legacy of historical painting,” says Eddison. (Merkel’s estimate is £500,000-£700,000.)

Peyton appears again in Phillips’ “20th Century to Now” sale on June 30, with a timely portrait of a young Prince Harry (£400,000-£600,000). “It’s going to be interesting to see how that does,” says Olivia Thornton, head of 20th-century and contemporary art, Europe, for whom another lot to watch is the Sarah Lucas sculpture “Someone Dropped a Bomb on Me” (£150,000-£200,000). Depicting a female form on a chair, the body is crudely constructed from pairs of tights stuffed with cotton wadding, playfully subverting the male gaze. “We sold a wonderful sculpture by her in New York in May,” says Thornton. “It totally outperformed the estimate of $100,000-$150,000 and made over $730,000.”

Free painting of a young ginger man
‘Prince Harry, September 1998’ (1998) by Elizabeth Peyton at Phillips © Tom Johnson
Painting of a woman in a stripy shirt sitting with her legs crossed on a chair
‘Nancy’ (1966) by Alice Neel at Christie’s © Christie’s

At Christie’s, the portrait is approached in Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art (on view June 20-July 13), an exhibition featuring works on loan by Tracey Emin, Suzanne Valadon and Alice Neel, as well as others for sale. The show “acts like an anchor to our auctions”, says Tessa Lord, the house’s acting head of postwar and contemporary art in London. Lots such as a 1944 Freud self-portrait (£1.5mn-£2mn) and the 2009 Lynette Yiadom-Boakye painting “Diplomacy I” (£1mn-£1.5mn) — recently shown at Tate Britain — “string together a powerful narrative around the theme of portraiture as a way to explore self-identity”, she adds.

Group portrait of people standing around
‘Diplomacy I’ (2009) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Christie’s © Christie’s Images

“I’m also really excited that we have a painting by Sahara Longe (£40,000-£60,000),” says Lord of the London-based artist who was classically trained in portrait painting in Florence and currently has a solo show at Timothy Taylor’s London gallery. “It’s a self-portrait, virtually life size, and has an almost spiritual presence.”

Despite reports of the art market slowing down, “the takeaway from the May sales in New York was overall very positive”, says James Sevier, senior vice-president at Sotheby’s. “Across Sotheby’s marquee sales, 53 per cent of works sold in excess of the high estimate.”

Those pieces Sevier expects to follow suit in London include a 1970 Cy Twombly blackboard painting, with “a really conservative and attractive” estimate of $10mn-$15mn, and Freud’s 1969-70 “Night Interior” (£8mn-£12mn), “an exquisitely realised, intimate scene, and an intensely powerful portrait” of a nude in his Paddington studio.

Painting of a person lying on a bed, their head behind a fishbowl
‘Fishbowl Head’ (2005) by Caroline Walker at Bonhams

“What the market is looking for is works by the most recognised, sought-after artists, which haven’t been seen at auction before and which are attractively estimated,” says Keith Gill, head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s London. “Where we can combine those three factors, we are still seeing very strong price levels, consistent with those of the past few years.”

Upcoming lots which seem to tick all the boxes include a summery Paul Signac seascape of the “Calanque des Canoubiers (Pointe de Bamer), Saint-Tropez” (£5.5mn-£7.5mn at Christie’s), a 1966 Barbara Hepworth bronze (£4mn-£6mn at Sotheby’s) and a 2005 painting by emerging Scottish painter Caroline Walker, “Fishbowl Head” (£40,000-£60,000 at Bonhams).

In fact, in the Bonhams sale “20th Century Masters: A Private Collection — Fontana to Baselitz” on June 29, six works by Lucio Fontana are coming to auction for the first time. “Our top lot [£1.6mn-£2.2mm] is a white shaped canvas from 1959 — just one year after Fontana started making the slashes,” says Giacomo Balsamo, international director of postwar and contemporary art, who suggests that the pioneering abstracts also relate to the idea of “selfhood”: “The action of slashing the canvas was to get a new, more philosophical dimension — to reach something beyond materiality.”

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