If you want a solid illustration of the leveling off in the Contemporary art market, look no further than these charts prepared by Athena Art Finance‘s data guru, Lisa Prosser. By a variety of measures, we can see that seller expectations have gotten ahead of the market and buyers are chasing after works at lower price levels.
The first chart, above, shows the aggregate of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’s Contemporary sales in a single chart. In both day and evening sales, the proportion of lots that exceeded estimates, shrunk from 2015 to 2016. Works that sold within estimates remained flat during the day sales but expanded dramatically for the evening sales. And the number of works that were bought in, or failed to find buyers, increased across both sales but to a greater proportion during the day than the evening.
Estimates are an interesting measure. But onlookers need to keep front of mind that estimates are merely marketing tools. The estimates, moreover, are often driven more by sellers expectations or optimism than they are by auction house professionals arrogance. The chart above shows us how well each of the auction houses did against their own estimates.
You can see that Christie’s and Sotheby’s were both able to significantly outperform their estimates during the day sales in 2015. Christie’s continued to outperform in London during the day sale in 2016. But Sotheby’s pretty much nailed the estimates. Phillips went from getting their estimates right during the London day sales of 2015 to lagging behind in 2016.
The evening sales are a slightly different story. Christie’s performed slightly better against their own estimates in 2016 than 2015 but still within the estimate range. Sotheby’s had greatly exceeded the 2015 estimates for the evening sale but performed toward the low end in 2016. Phillips did slightly worse on estimates in 2016 too.
This final chart is perhaps the most important one. The composition of Contemporary lots sold in London in February changed sharply from 2015 to 2016. Of the total sales value, 16% shifted from the top to the bottom. The overwhelming majority of that shift went from works above £10m to works below £1m. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing for the market. It continues the theme of more transactions at lower values that may give us lower aggregate totals but represent less crowding of value into a very few number of lots.