[private_subscriber][private_bundle]Next week, all eyes remain on London for the first major contemporary art evening sales of 2010. Sotheby’s auction includes 49 works from the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg collection that are bound to set a host of new records for undervalued European artists like Roman Opalka and Gerhard von Graevenitz. Christie’s, meanwhile, is featuring a tight sale, hanging its hopes on major lots by Yves Klein and Peter Doig. And Phillips is holding its breath for a pair of 1984 Basquiats and a modestly estimated Abstraktes Bild from Gerhard Richter.
But don’t expect fireworks. February evening sales of contemporary art are typically less flashy than their counterparts in May, June/July and November. Over the past three years the average price for a lot sold in a Q1 evening sale has been about 50% lower than the average price of one sold in the other three quarters. And none of the upcoming contemporary works have the potential to shake the foundation of the art market in the manner of yesterday’s Giacometti: The highest estimate for a contemporary lot (Yves Klein’s RE 47 II) is only £5 million to £7 million, and 56% of the 175 lots are expected to fetch less than £200,000. However, if the houses can tap into the recuperative energy of last week’s sessions and get through the contemporary sales with lower buy-in rates and higher average prices than they posted in 2009, who knows what gems we’ll see on the block in May.
When viewed in the context of the past decade, the current state of the contemporary market is not so bleak. As Fig. 1 shows, although the results of the category’s evening sales have fallen from their boom-era heights, they have returned to their 2006 levels (which showed a pattern of steady growth from 1999). The average price of a work sold at a contemporary evening sale in 2006 was $1,582,298, and last year’s average was just shy of that figure at $1,541,533. Zooming in on the past three years is initially discouraging—after all, the last two quarters of 2008 sent the market into a downward spiral—but there was notable growth in 2009, especially at the top of the market (Fig. 2). In Q4 2009, the top 10% of works sold in evening sales brought an average of $5,684,949, whereas in Q4 2008 they averaged only $3,920,489. This February should provide a clue to whether the performance of the market in Q4 2009 was simply market stabilization or, perhaps, the beginning of another upswing.