At the very beginning of March both New York salerooms offered their mid-season American art auctions and with very little serious meat on the table nobody expected great results.
Now before I get into the specifics I must say that I was thoroughly amused by an email I received from a firm that sent an analysis report on the upcoming sales … as stated in their email, the firm strives: to develop quantitative methodologies custom made for the art world that are capable of analyzing general trends without overlooking the singularity of each unique work. This is scaring me … people are trying to analyze the art market as they would the stock market. OK, I will try to keep an open mind, but in general I have to say — give me a break! Please do not turn the art market into an investment analysis circus.
I have said this before, the public art market’s successes or failures have more to do with what, and how much, is being offered than anything else. When the market is booming and people are making lots of money, more buyers enter the market and with limited supply (for deceased artists) prices escalate; but trying to give accurate investment advice for any specific work is almost impossible since each one is unique and there are so many factors that will impact on any one of them during the specific day they are sold: the number of works already on the market, the number of works by an artist in that specific sale, current economic climate, and the importance / quality / condition / etc. of that work. Let’s face it; if there are a dozen works by an artist available in a specific sale, some are going to do far better than others since people can easily compare one to another. However, if those same dozen paintings were spread out over 12 different sales, the results would, more than likely, be markedly different.
Anyway, I downloaded the attached document and was confronted with a report that read like some research firms analysis of a Fortune 500 company. Lots of Q1, Q2, Q3 comments, phrases like ‘price deflation’ and ‘value distribution’. There were brightly colored line and bar graphs with titles like Indexes of Quarterly Performance and Resurging Average Prices; pie charts labeled Lachaise’s Price Determinants and Quarterly Value Distributions; a Glossary of terms and a really nice Disclaimer in which they make: no guarantees as to the accuracy of the information provided in this document; that made me laugh!
Here is my main issue. Very few, if any, of the individuals writing these reports actually see the works being offered. They are basing their information on the reported results. It is so important in the art world to look at the items being offered; making sure that the works are, in fact, real/authentic, and knowing the quality, period and condition of each piece; all of which will have a huge impact on price.
Now I know that I often give a great deal of statistical information on the sales, and do use the final results for much of that information, but (and this is a big BUT) I also view almost all of the sales I write about and actually look at the condition and quality of the works being offered.
I will continue to stress this: every work of art is an individual entity, while every share of common stock, from any specific corporation, is identical to the next. And here is my advice: worry less about statistical analysis and more about what is being offered. You do not want to get caught-up in the hype and start buying because the stats say that a specific artist’s work is hot … we have all seen what happens when those artist go from hot to cold – it is often a very quick change and the results can be devastating.
Now on to the specifics: Taking top honors in the series of American sales was Jules Saintin’s Pony Express that sold for an auction record $146,500 (est. $30-$50,000); Milton Avery’s Twilight Sea ($30-$50,000) made $116,500; and Jane Peterson’s large White and Pink Dogwood – a personal favorite – brought $116,500 (est. $20-$30,000). In fourth, at $92,500, was a lovely (small) work by Cropsey and there was a tie for fifth at $68,500 – a work by A.T. Bricher and one by G. Lachaise.
Overall, the works offered were less than stellar, far less in my opinion … but remember, that is what these mid-season sales are all about. It was also interesting to see that the two salerooms were evenly matched: Sotheby’s offered 180 lots, of which 124 sold and 56 were returned to their owners for a sell-through rate of 68.9% and a total take of $2.31M. Christie’s offered 189 lots of which 123 sold, 64 were bought-in and 1 was withdrawn for a sell-through rate of 66% and a total take of $2.41M; in addition, this saleroom sold 4 of the top 5 lots.
Given the current state of the art market … one in which people are looking to buy the best works they can … these two sales did as one would have expected.