The Economist doesn’t like the top lots in New York’s Old Master sales next week. But that hasn’t stopped the magazine from providing a few figures that might put the proceedings in context:
In 2008 the two main auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, sold just under $700m worth of Old Master paintings. Last year, with the art market in freefall, sales totalled $468.8m. Sotheby’s, which has the larger share of the Old Master market, saw a bigger year-on-year fall: 36%. It would have been helpful to have been able to analyse the sector over a longer period, but both auction houses have been shaking up what they call Old Masters. […] In January 2008 Sotheby’s offered 345 pictures in its Important Old Master sale in New York. The following year, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and in the midst of the bank bail-out, the same sale had shrunk to 223 paintings. But the second half of 2009 saw stability return to the art market. Rising prices renewed confidence for sellers and buyers.
So what will the first big sale of 2010—Sotheby’s Old Master auctions, from January 27th to 29th in New York—tell us about the market today? At first glance, it doesn’t look too good: the number of paintings on offer at the main sale has fallen again, to a tight 202 lots. But the figures are worth taking apart. In 2008 just under 60% of the 345 pictures on offer found a buyer. In 2009 the sale was smaller and only half the paintings sold, but the average price achieved per lot was far higher: $546,000 per picture in 2009 compared with $373,000 a year earlier.
Masters and Mistresses (Economist.com)