Looking through the catalogues for New York’s marquee Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales, the first thought that is likely to occur is the substantial number of works sourced from museums or private collections: Boston’s MFA, Norton Simon, the City of Denver, Lew and Edie Wasserman, the Burnett Foundation, John Kluge and number of other groups of works proffered by collectors interested in minimalism, the work of Max Ernst and Gerhard Richter and so forth.
The strength of the art market was clearly attractive to institutional sellers stacking the evening sales to near bursting with 155 lots in the combined Sotheby’s and Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sales and 235 lots of Contemporary art being vended at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury. With that kind of selling volume the auction houses can pick and choose what they see as the works most likely to sell well.
A bought in lot is a failure for the consignor but also a lost commission for the auction house and a waste of valuable time and effort.
With all of that in mind, how do we explain the significant number of lots on offer in the evening sales—primarily Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales—that were bought during the art market’s peak year of 2007. There are 36 lots on offer over the next two weeks that were bought in 2007 or later. The vast majority were bought at auction, though some works were bought through dealers. Another five works were bought in 2006, another strong year for the art market.
Works from the Class of 2007 and later make up slightly more than 10% of the evening sales total lots. When the number of institutions and collections are accounted for, the Class of 2007 is making an even stronger showing. It used to be that works with a recent auction history were approached by the auction houses gingerly. Fresh to the market is one leg of the auction-house mantra of what sells (Good works, fresh to the market that are attractively estimated.)
Each lot from the Class of 2007 surely has its own story. How and why it is up for sale this November can only be determined by talking to the consignor. But as a group some very interesting observations can be made:
- 17 of the 31 works on offer have estimate ranges that begin above their purchase price.
- Works purchased for $500,000 and $2m predominate among the lots with estimates that indicate hopes for a profit.
- Works purchased for $1m or so form the bulk of items carrying estimates that suggest consignors primarily interested in cashing out.
- The majority of works from the Class of 2007 were bought at Christies.
- The majority of works from the Class of 2007 are being sold at Sotheby’s
- One work was bought in April 2011 at a French auction house
In two weeks, we’ll know more about the wisdom of these consignments. In the meantime, their mere presence suggests a few things.
The first is that art may have proved a better store of value over the four year period from the height of the credit bubble to today. Even with a strong recovery in equity markets, the S&P 500 remains substantially lower than it was in 2007. Money parked in blue-chip art may have proved, for whatever reason, a better store of value.
The second point to make is that the art market is growing much more comfortable with works of art that trade often. This may be a function of art being used as a store of value. Several of the Class of 2007 works were clearly bought to be part of art collections that were not assembled as investments. Nonetheless, if a substantial number of works can be sold within a short window it further reduces the aversion to buying and selling often.
What’s interesting to note is that most of the works that are being re-sold were bought at auction. There are several works that were bought from dealers within the last four years that are now coming to market. Phillips de Pury’s sale is filled with works whose provenance is a sole primary dealer. The art world’s biggest complaint during the height of the bubble was collectors who made promises to dealers but would sell at auction instead. Post-boom, we’re seeing greater traffic in auctioned works.
One obvious explanation for the prevalence of recently auction works should also be mentioned. The auction houses are eager to source work for their most visible and profitable auctions. It is no secret that they’re having trouble attracting consignments from the owners of good work who are under no presser to sell. We’re told over and over that the owners have no good use for cash and remain unwilling to sell their A+ works. Once the specialists tapped institutions and the estates that were available, they may have simply gone back to their client base looking for works they believed to have increased in value. The fact that most of the works were purchased at Christie’s but are being sold at Sotheby’s might mitigate this explanation.
This month’s sales may simply be an aberration. The art market’s recovery seems more reliable today than it was even in 2010. Over ambitious or ill-considered purchases at the height of the credit bubble might now simply be safe to unload at a minimal loss and we’re seeing a rush to the exits in a positive sense. Or these sales may portend more active public trading of blue chip works.
No matter what caused so many recently purchased works to come back to the market, their success or failure will be milestone in the evolution of the art market.