The 2010 New York art auction action finished with the American painting sales and as we have seen with other 19th century sales, the offerings had their high and low points.
Taking top honors here was Edmund Tarbell’s Child with Boat that carried a $2-$3M estimate and sold for $4.2M; coming in second was Winslow Homer’s Peach Blossoms that fell short of its $3-$5M estimate to sell at $2.88M and capturing the third position was Frank Benson’s portrait titled Two Little Girls which made $2.1M (est. $1.5-$2.5M). Rounding out the top 5 were John S. Sargent’s Ricordi di Capri at $1.65M (just squeaking past it low estimate of $1.5M) and Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, New York, which blew by its high estimate of $700,000 to sell for $1.54M.
In addition there were some additional results I think you will find of interest. A nice, small (12 x 16 inch) Wall Street snow scene by Guy Wiggins made $101,500; Norman Rockwell’s Dreamboats made $1.1M while his study for The Problem We All Live With made an impressive $855K (est. $150-$250K) and Marsden Hartley’s Knotting Rope (est. $150-$250K) made $975K.
On the flip side there were works that could not find buyers. Among the biggest failures were: Marsden Hartley’s Still Life with Flowers (est. $700-$1M); Julius Stewart’s In the Garden ($700-$1M); George Bellows’ Between Rounds ($600-$800K); Sharp’s Fireside ($500-$700K); Moran’s Sunrise Landscape ($400-$600K); Farny’s Something Stirring ($300-$500K); Milton Avery’s Sally at the Writing Table ($250-$350K); as well as works by Wyeth, Bridgman, Hennings, Rockwell, Hassam, Moses, Burchfield…
When the sales ended, the results at Christie’s were a bit short of expectations: they offered 148 works of which 96 sold and 52 were returned to their owners, leaving a sell-through rate of 65% and a total take of $21.2M (with the commissions) – the low end of their estimate (without commissions) was over $23M. And as for their competition, Sotheby’s offered 133 works of which 89 sold and 44 were returned to their owners; leaving them a sell-through rate of 66.9% and a total take of $27M (with commissions) … the low end of their estimate was also just over $23M (without commissions).
So you may be wondering where this particular market has gone over the past few years, well…
2006: 387 lots offered, 309 sold (79.8%), total take $120.9M, top lot -$26.8M (Hopper)
2007: 414 lots offered, 314 sold (75.8%), total take $136.8M, top lot -$5.9M (Rockwell)
2008: 370 lots offered, 218 sold (59%), total take $46.1M – top lot -$2.66M (Silva)
2009: 239 lots offered, 166 sold (69%), total take $57.4M – top lot -$6.9M (Wyeth)
2010: 281 lots offered, 185 sold (65.8%), total take $48.2M – top lot -$4.2M (Tarbell)
From the numbers above one can see that the American painting market is still in the recovery phase and the auction rooms are having trouble getting the really great works. I continue to recommend that the auction rooms pare down the offerings and present only the best works they can obtain; it would be nice to see an improvement in the sell-through rates.
Are You Kidding!?
And while I am on the American market, here is a contender for the “Most Ridiculous Price of the Year Award”. In May a nice painting by Nikolai Fechin was offered at Doyle New York and sold for $632,500 (est. $200-$300K) – a pretty good price for this artist whose auction record, at the time, was $1.1M. Well, this December the same Fechin painting (The Little Cowboy) was offered in a Russian painting sale in London and when the battle was over, and this was a battle, the painting sold for an astounding $10.85M! Talk about a short term gain. I am still trying to determine whether I feel worse for the people who sold it at the Doyle sale or the buyer at the Russian sale.
Old Master, British and Some (I Stress SOME) 19th Century
By the 8th our attention turned to the London for the Old Master sales (as you know, currently Christie’s includes their 19th century offerings in these sales as well).
First up was Christie’s evening sale whose overall results were disappointing, and that was caused by one painting – the Poussin. Like I always say: what a difference a painting can make. The top sold lot was The Master of the Baroncelli Portraits which made £4.2M ($6.6M) on a £1-£1.5M estimate; second place was achieved by Gerrit Berckheyde’s A View of Haarlem from the northwest corner… at £2.6M ($4.1M) on a £500-£700K est.; and third place was grabbed by Le Lorrain’s Extensive Landscape … at £2.05M ($3.2M) – just above its low estimate of £2M. In addition, the highlight of this sale was Nicolas Poussin’s Ordination; a work I saw in NYC and was far from impressed with it … I actually commented to the person I was with that I could not understand why it was so highly valued (£15-£20M). It was not very impressive (in my humble opinion); but then again I am not an Old Master dealer. Anyway, the Poussin was the last lot in the sale and the catalog entry was 36 pages long … I am sure you can guess what happened … it did not sell – what a waste of paper!
This sale also highlighted the best 19th Century works they could source … but one was hard pressed to find many really great 19th century paintings here. In fact, of the 52 works offered, only 7 fell into the 19th Century arena and of those 5 sold and 2 did not.
When the evening ended, of the 52 lots, 39 sold leaving a sell-through rate of 75% and a total take of £25.3M ($39.9M) – the low end of the presale estimate was £31.1M ($49.1M) – so they fell a bit short. Now if the Poussin was not part of the sale, the low end of the estimate would have been £17.1M and their total would have easily beaten that. And in case you are wondering about the 19th Century works – the 7 pieces had a total presale estimate of £1.16-£1.76M and brought £1.28M (within the estimate, but only after the buyer’s commissions is added).
The following evening Sotheby’s held their Old Master & British Painting sale; and while the overall results were in line with their competition, they did sell their top lot (which came in at number one): George Stubbs’s Brood Mares and Foals, £10.1M ($15.9M — est. £10-£15M). You should note that it only reached the low end of the estimate with the buyer’s commission added in, but it sold. Taking second place was a Venice scene by Canaletto bringing £2.2M ($3.5M) on a £2-£3M estimate and in third was Luis de Morales’s The Virgin and Child which trounced its £250-£350K estimate to sell for £1.6M ($2.5M).
When this sale ended 32 of the 44 works sold; creating a sell-through rate of 72.7% and a total take of £23.6M ($37M) — their presale estimate was £20.4-£30M. So they only hit the estimate range after the buyer’s premium is added in … but they made it!
Now both salerooms had corresponding day sales whose results were rather disappointing. Christie’s offered 246 works and sold only 119 for a sell-through rate of 48% and a total take of £5M ($7.9M). The top lot three lots were a Breughel at £241K ($379K – est. £80-£120K); a Circle of van Poelenburgh at £199K ($313K – est. £12-£18K) and a von Stuck at £157K ($247K – est. £20-£30K). It was nice to see that of the top 10 works 6 were from the 19th century. I will add that the one surprise to me was a small (15 x 18 inch) Corot that actually sold since it had a tear that must have been close to 25 inches long; the piece carried a £50-£70K estimate and brought £55K ($87K).
Sotheby’s day sale did a little better, but it was still far from ‘good’. Of the 171 works offered, 100 sold for a sell-through rate of 58.8% and a total take of £4.4M ($7M). On the positive side, the top three lots crushed their presale estimates: Castilian School (est. £40-£60K) sold for £307K ($486K); Tironi’s Venice scene made £229K ($363K – est. £80-£120K) and a portrait by Pickering made £223K ($353K – est. £20-£30K). In fact, all of the top 10 easily beat their estimates.
In addition to these main sales, Christie’s had two lower end sales of Old Master & 19th Century works. The first featured drawing and watercolors – of the 236 items offered and 163 sold for a sell-through rate of 69% and grossed £419K ($664K). The second sale offered paintings and some watercolors – of the 349 works offered 207 sold (60% sell-through rate) and grossed £1.14M ($1.8M).
When this series of sales finished the totals were as follows (APPL = Average Price Per Lot):
Christie’s: 883 offered – 528 sold (59.8%) – total take £31.9M ($50.4M) – APPL £96K ($152K)
Sotheby’s: 215 offered – 132 sold (61.4%) – total take £28M ($44M) – APPL £333K ($527K)
Now if we remove Christie’s ‘lower end sales’ from the results (so we are comparing apples to apples) then their overall totals were: 298 offered – 158 sold – total take £30.4M ($47.8M) – APPL £192K ($303K). This is still well below their competition. Like I have been saying — Smaller, stronger, sales are the way to go today … and Christie’s: Give Us Back Our 19th Century Sales!!!
In case you were wondering, here are the results for the past three years (again, so we can compare apples to apples, I did not include the lower-level sales for 2010) … the sell-through rates are not heading in the right direction:
2008 – 447 offered, 286 sold, 64% sell-through rate, total take £35.9M ($53.3M)
2009 – 407 offered, 254 sold, 62.4% sell-through rate, total take £90.7M ($148.7M)
2010 – 513 offered, 290 sold, 56.5% sell-through rate, total take £58.4M ($91.8M)
In the next chart I have compared the total sales volume against all the works offered (this included the lower-level sales for 2010) … and as you will see, more works does not equal more money:
And the final chart compares the Total Lots Offered vs. the Sell-through Rates – here again you will see that more product does not mean better sell-through rates.
From the numbers, and charts, I would say that they are having trouble obtaining high quality works with reasonable estimates and the sell-through rates are declining. It is really important to remember that quality is far better than quantity!