The nice people at Artnet ran some numbers on the Armory Week Contemporary art sales over the last nine years and gave us the data to interpret. What’s interesting is to be able to see the steady recovery of the Contemporary art market, especially at the opposite end of the marquee auctions. These Armory week sales, like their October counterparts in London designed to coincide with Frieze, are dominated by a very different sort of work. The auctions are skewed toward the discovery end of the market or work that has a smaller group of potential buyers with expectations of lower prices.
You might think of these sales as the pulse of the market, a signal whether there is depth to buyer interest and demand. The first chart shows the growth of sales volume and average price over the last nine years. The beige bars are the total amount of sales for First Open, Mid-Season Contemporary (now Contemporary Curated) and Under the Influence sales. Phillips often holds evening sales during this period but we omitted those for consistency. Under the Influence was not held in 2010 and Phillips and Sotheby’s did not have sales in 2005. But you can see a clear and consistent trend of growth during the art market take off of 2006-2008. Then, after the credit crisis crash in the market, you can follow a steady, almost linear, rise in the sales.
Notice how the average price of a Contemporary art work sold during the March events quickly recovers before rising almost out of sight. But it takes until 2013 for the sales volume to recover the same levels seen in the boom years of 2007-2008.
The graph suggests that during times of stress, art simply fails to trade but the works that do trade are valued at the same level as during previous years. In other words, we’re still in a secular (as opposed to cyclical) growth in the valuation of Contemporary art.
There is one important caveat to that growth. The second graph illustrates the same data but in a different manner. The blue line is the number of lots sold during those March events. Even excluding the retrenchment of 2009 and 2010, you can see a steady decline in the number of lots sold from the initial boom years in 2007 and 2008. That shows a couple of important trends. The first is that Contemporary art is simply more valuable than ever before. The lots that do sell are valued much higher than previously which drives the total sales volume up even as the number of lots sold declines.
This year showed a pronounced leap in average prices which you can see in the first graph in the final bar and ascending line. You can see it second graph too as the number of lots sold breaks sharply down from the trend since 2011 and the sale volume continues to make big strides upwards.