Much of the response to Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening sale’s disappointing $331m performance—as you’ll read below—is to wonder about the health and state of the art market. By that, most commenters mean whether there is sufficient and aggressive demand for art.
But last night’s sale brings up more questions about Christie’s, its strategic aims and ambitions in the art market, than it does about the state of the overall market itself. For the last several years, Christie’s has embarked upon an aggressive campaign to transform the art market through the Contemporary art category. Using a phalanx of business-getting talent, seemingly unrivaled access to the best property and an industry-dominating guarantee book it has inspired shock and awe among collectors and its rivals.
Christie’s dominance in Contemporary art toppled the management of its main rival and emboldened the firm itself to reject its own internal “change agent.” At the time, too many commentators insisted the change in leadership at Christie’s would bring an aggressive drive toward profit. But so far this week, the evidence points in the other direction.
Over the last two nights, Christie’s has used its guarantee book to subsidize the top end of the market. In an effort to manage its risk, it laid off to third parties the profits that might have come from selling the Modigliani nude. Yet it was still able to take a bow for having achieved the top five prices ever made at auction, four just in the last year.
Christie’s has sold more than $800m in art over the last two nights. Nonetheless, any observer has to wonder about Christie’s strategic goals. The top was achieved last season. Now that the sales totals are retrenching, there are not many outward signs that it is focusing on profits over market share.
Had Christie’s stuck to a PWC and Imp-Mod Evening sale formula, the Lichtenstein Nurse and Crying Girl would have have added much needed strength to the sale. Perhaps it would also have allowed the firm to avoid the no-man’s land of $40-50m works that seems to have developed in the market.
Instead, the public had the opportunity to observe some unnerving behavior. Less than a week before the sale, when Christie’s would have a had a clear sense of what kind of interest was being expressed for the night’s top lot, Andy Warhol’s Four Marilyns, Brett Gorvy told the New York Times the work had been undersold by Phillips fewer than three years before.
The bravado was impressive … until the work was further undersold.
The sniping with rivals is irrelevant to the bigger issue. Last night’s sale of the Four Marilyns for $36m after being guaranteed for $44m cannot help shore up confidence in the Warhol market which seems to be quite weak right now. As most market participants agree, the Warhol market has been an essential pillar of the Contemporary art market. A fact that might have made others tread with more caution.
Nate Freeman at Artnews seems to have zeroed in on the saga. First, he quoted Gorvy hinting at the motivation for bringing this particular work (which the buyer is said to have bought to flip and was happily shopping around privately.)
“I don’t think there’s a correction in the market,” Gorvy went on. “I think it’s just about the objects—we went into the season with less of these $40 to $50 million objects.”
Then Freeman went into detail on the Warhol:
“When things come back to auction quickly, sometimes that affects their desirability,” Gagosian said upon exiting the auction, where he purchased Jeff Koons’ Balloon Swan (Yellow) for $14.7 million, but did not bid again on the Warhol he had previously purchased.
When Tico Mugrabi […] was approached following the sale […] he said “It’s the third time it came to auction in the last few years, that’s why!”
“Frankly,” Gorvy said of Four Marilyns, in the press conference, “It was a fantastic buy tonight for the buyer.”
[…] two other Warhols with high estimates in the eight figures crashed and burned on the podium, with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen imploring David or Tico Mugrabi to make a bid to save his hide, but they did not. They were passes.“They were overpriced,” Tico said later, shrugging.
The signaling here is more important than the sale. For now, at least, the Warhol market is on its own. Left to its own devices, Warhol seems to be doing just fine. Late in Christie’s sale, a little green Electric Chair was sold for $11.4m. It had been estimated at $6-9m and sold without a guarantee.
As far as the broader market for art goes, it would seem that the tone varies from wanting to block any doubts with strong statements to a nervousness. Judd Tully spoke to Christophe van de Weghe and got the former type of quote:
“I tried for two things,” the dealer said later. “This market is very strong and there’s nothing else to say.”
Robin Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn gave us a bit of the latter:
“There’s plenty of money around at the very top of the market, and these people all want the same things,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, director of the Berlin branch of the art dealership, Dickinson. “The middle range is softer — if you can call $10 million the middle range. The market is a bit more nervous than it was. You can’t overestimate things that aren’t top quality.”
Katya Kazakina got a little of the same:
“There is a general unease in the market,” said Kristine Bell, a partner at David Zwirner gallery in New York and London. “People are waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’ve been talking about this for a while but now it seems like a real possibility.”
Finally, Kelly Crow focused on the big surprise of these sales which may be a testament to Christie’s reach in the Chinese market. As with the Modigliani the night before, Chinese buyers emerged in surprising places to make big market-supporting purchases:
A Chinese telephone bidder took home Lucio Fontana’s yellow, egg-shape “Spatial Concept, The End of God” painting from 1964 for $25.9 million, or $29.2 million with fees. The work was estimated to sell for $25 million. (Estimates, unlike final sale prices, don’t reflect commissions.)
Another Chinese bidder paid Christie’s $9.5 million for Alexander Calder’s hanging mobile, “Vertical out of Horizontal,” one of a group of Calders being sold by the estate of Arthur and Anita Kahn that proved a hit with bidders. […]
Elsewhere in the sale, six other record prices were smashed for artists like conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose row of refillable green candy, “Untitled (L.A.),” sold to a phone bidder for $7.7 million with fees.
Mixed Night in ‘Strange’ Christie’s Contemporary and Postwar Sale (The New York Times)
Warhol’s ‘Four Marilyns’ Tops Christie’s Sale Showing Restraint (Bloomberg Business)