Surrealist Fantasy Sets $28.5 Million Record for Leonora Carrington at Sotheby`s

Artnet_ A Surrealist painting by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) fetched $28.5 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s in New York tonight, setting a new auction record for the British artist.

The dazzling 1945 tempera, Les Distractions de Dagobert, was the star of Sotheby’s modern art evening sale. Estimated at $12 million to $18 million, it was backed by an irrevocable bid that ensured it would sell.

The work sold after 10 minutes of bidding that included a fierce duel between a man seated in the room and someone on the phone with Alejandra Rossetti, who runs business development for Sotheby’s in Miami.

When the price climbed past its high estimate, to $20.8 million, a third competitor entered the field, on the phone with Jen Hua, the house’s deputy chairmen for Asia and chairman for China. But when the man in the crowd offered $24.5 million, his two rivals went silent. Auctioneer Oliver Barker gave them time to counter, but then he raised his hammer. “The gentleman has waited long enough,” he said. It was his.

That determined bidder? Argentinian developer and businessman Eduardo F. Costantini, the founder of the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires. “This is a superb piece in the history of Surrealism,” Costantini said, as he headed for the exit. “I was the underbidder 30 years ago for this picture, and I didn’t want to miss it this time.”

Tonight’s anonymous seller outbid Costantini for the work back in 1995 at Sotheby’s, paying $475,500. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $990,000 today.)

The $28.5 million result obliterated the artist’s previous auction high of $3.3 million, established two years ago, also at Sotheby’s.

The frenetic scene is Carrington’s version of a Boschian garden of earthly delights, illustrating the decadent life of Dagobert I, the storied 7th-century Frankish king of the Merovingian dynasty. The artist was 28 and pregnant with her first child when she made the work.

“It’s one of her great paintings,” said dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, who included it in “Surrealism in Mexico,” a 2019 exhibition at his Manhattan gallery. “It’s got very complex imagery, all those different vignettes.”

That imagery is wild and specific: Hybrid creatures, which appear to be part-human, part-animal, part-plant, carry out mysterious rituals. The artist drew on medieval European history, scientific literature of the time, and Celtic and Mexican mythology to create the iconography.

At the center of the composition is a king in a red robe, surrounded by a panoply of visions or hallucinations, like a flying woman with a stag head, a man consumed by flames, and another woman stretched out on a boat with a baby’s face painted on her head.

Prices for female Surrealists, some of whom flocked to Mexico during World War II, have been steadily rising, and fresh records have been set in recent years for Frida Kahlo ($34.9 million, notched in 2021) and Leonor Fini ($2.3 million, also in 2021).

Les Distractions de Dagobert has been requested for two exhibitions scheduled for 2025: “Leonora Carrington: Dream Weaver” at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, just outside Boston, and “Surrealism” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.