The painting is a feast of colors and allegories – the body of the Homeric hero shines under the light as he places three flowers on his bird cage-for-a-head. The ancient philosopher, dressed in a green tunic, is carrying three fish in his hand. Between the two stands another faceless figurine: a woman dressed in Belle Epoque-style garb holding a clock. Around them, the painting features white clouds in a blue sky, several utensils, fruit, buildings, a checkered tilework.
“Scène homérique avec le héros,” which was painted by Nikos Engonopoulos in 1938 and exhibited in the 1954 Venice Biennale, was sold at a recent auction held by the London-based auction house Bonhams for £682,550 (763,890 euros), exceeding its pre-sale estimate of £150,000-200,000 by far.
“You never know how passionate a potential buyer can get about a particular work of art,” Anastasia Orfanidou, a specialist on Greek art at Bonhams, told Kathimerini.
The painting by Engonopoulos was not the only work to outperform at last Wednesday’s auction, Bonhams’ second Greek sale behind closed doors due to the pandemic after a first auction in May. Yiannis Moralis’ “Erotic,” which had been estimated to sell at between £180,000-250,000, eventually went for £525,250 (587,772 euros). Meanwhile, Yannis Tsarouchis’ “Portrait of a Young Man” sold for £35,250 (39,439 euros), while the pre-sale estimate was £20,000.
The auction raised more than £2.3 million – a major success for Bonhams as well as the Greek art market.
“As recent sales have shown, there’s always a market and a room for works of high art and quality,” Orfanidou said, adding that the so-called 30s Generation have been the most-in-demand artists at recent auctions.
Orfanidou says that since the start of the pandemic, the performance of the secondary market (auction houses) has been stronger than the primary market (galleries), as auctions have done really well. But why is that?
First, a work of art offers an “alternative investment” which can offer buyers great security during a period of “total insecurity” in international markets, Orfanidou says.
Perhaps a second factor, she says, is that in the secondary market, potential buyers have easier access to information regarding the works on offer, including their prices, and there is immediate contact between potential buyers and experts. The fact that auctions have moved online at a time when people spend more time at home and on their computers also helps, she adds.
Orfanidou explains that auctions are now taking place in real time and behind closed doors. Only the auctioneer is present at the venue. Bids are made online via the Bonhams app or website, over the phone or through absentee bids lodged before the event.
The art world has seen a major online shift, a trend that is maybe democratizing a traditionally closed market. Buyers that would otherwise be not quite familiar with Greece or Greek art, as in this particular auction, are now given better access, Orfanidou says.
“It was a very welcome surprise. It’s a sign that Greek art can escape the country’s boundaries and reach out to an international market,” she said.
“At the same time, because of the pandemic, people feel more confident about placing their bids online, [as the procedure does not require] their physical presence,” she added.
The Bonhams auction list contains works by a large number of Greek artists, from 19th century painter Konstantinos Volanakis to contemporary artist Apostolos Georgiou. Orfanidou expects that foreign buyers, as well as a younger generation of art aficionados, will become better acquainted with Greek art.
“A look at the Greek sales catalogues is like going back to the history and the development of Greek art. We should be more interested [in the field], particularly the younger generations,” she said. “It’s part of the country’s culture.”