Christie’s showed what it was made of once again last night pulling off a strong sale in a down market. The broader world is having trouble adjusting to the idea that the current art market peaked in 2014 and the eye-catching sales of 2015 were less about momentum than what the equity market watchers might call a blow-off top.
The market in 2016, especially for Contemporary art would be considered frightfully strong measured against any years before 2013. In two nights, Christie’s has found buyers for nearly $400m in Contemporary art. By the time the day sales are done, that figure will approach half a billion dollars, a massive sum.
The New York Times acknowledged some of this when Robin Pogrebin and Scott Reyburn spoke to a few market veterans:
“It’s not 2014 — we got used to super-high results,” Kyoko Tamura, the Japanese collector, said. “The really fashionable artists are down 20 to 30 percent. But the market is O.K.”
“It was much stronger than any of us thought it was going to be,” Mary Zlot, a San Francisco art adviser, said. “If the price is right, people will buy.”
Ermanno Rivetti had this quote in The Art Newspaper:
“They did a really good job on reserves,” said the dealer Mimmo Vedovi.
Katya Kazakina found others who concurred with the above:
“Within the context of May 2016 it was a strong sale,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund Group in London. “It’s not 2014 or 2015. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. The world has changed.”
Kazakina provided the most astonishing story of the evening. Christie’s sale was highly dependent upon a single buyer from Japan who purchased 25% of the sale’s value in five different works:
The same Asian buyer who acquired the Basquiat through Christie’s specialist Koji Inoue also snapped up a sculpture by Jeff Koons, a painting by Richard Prince, an Alexander Calder mobile and a light piece spelling “Eat War” by Bruce Nauman for more than $80 million. […]
Asian buyers accounted for about 20 percent of the sales total, said Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s president and the evening’s auctioneer.
Without that bidder, there were significant lots like the Rothko being sold by David Martinez and the Clyfford Still that had only one nibble for these blue chip works valued above $25m. Here Kazakina had more commentary:
“The air is very thin above $10 million,” said Hugo Nathan, director of London-based Beaumont Nathan Independent Art Advisors. “A lot of that crazy money has wised up in the past few years. When you take away the guarantees and there is no safety net, there might be a push-back. Do you really want to be the lone bidder at $25 million?”
With that in mind, veterans are not mistaking relative strength for real lasting market direction. Here’s what Kelly Crow witnessed:
Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad isn’t quite convinced. Walking out of the sale, New York investor Andrew Saul shook Mr. Broad’s hand and said, “Strong sale, right?”
Mr. Broad nodded but seconds later said, “I’ve seen all this before. I think Christie’s pulled off a good sale, but I think the market is ready to take a pause.”
Indeed, a good deal of Christie’s success comes from its aggressive management of the sales. Christie’s leaves little to chance and goes the extra bit to make sure works don’t fail. Brett Gorvy was only too happy to take a dig at a rival auction house now run by a former colleague. Following Sotheby’s tough Imp-Mod sale, Gorvy told his post-sale press conference, including ArtNews’s Nate Freeman:
“We had to deal with the trepidation of last night’s results,” Gorvy said at the press conference after the sale. “But I woke up this morning and told my team, ‘We have to have a sale that has over 85 percent.’ And I’m glad the team actually listened to me, because we’re at 87.”
The plumping for Christie’s team didn’t end there. Freeman also quoted the spouse of a senior Christie’s specialist as he too slipped the shiv into Sotheby’s:
“It was a very, very strong sale, very encouraging,” said Richard Gray Gallery partner Andrew Fabricant as he walked out.
“It just shows that the difference in the material makes all the difference,” he added, referring to Christie’s arch rival, Sotheby’s. “Christie’s has a much bigger outreach program, and it shows in the consignments. People feel like this is where the people are going to gravitate, and where there are experts.”
The Master, Judd Tully, was the only observer to drill down to the art itself. Any serious market watcher would have been concerned or hopeful to see the big cache of Calder works Christie’s brought to the block. In the end, the works did well-ish. There was only one real casualty and the rest sold reasonably well given the broader market but still not as well as they might have were fewer works available at once, experts say.
Still, eight hits out of nine at bats is a championship batting average, and Calder, whose pieces brought a total of $25.9 million, has to be recognized as a blue-chip star. “Calder is recession-proof,” said New York private dealer Meredith Palmer, “because he invented a new form of sculpture.” Palmer wouldn’t say what lot she bid on but acknowledged she was quickly outgunned.
Tully also had this very telling market measure as a blue chip work came back on the block after selling during the 2014 peak:
Another post-war stalwart represented in the sale was Willem de Kooning, whose late and almost minimal abstraction in oil on canvas “Untitled XVIII” from 1984 [lot 19] that sold for $4,757,000 (est. $4-6 million). The painting last sold at Phillips New York in November 2014 for $4,869,000. The current discount indicate that it came back prematurely to the market. A second late de Kooning from another consignor, the 1986 “Untitled XXIX,” identically scaled at 77 by 88 inches, went for $4,477,000 (est. $4-6 million). It was acquired by collectors Kenneth and Susan Kaiserman in 1987 from Xavier Fourcade, de Kooning’s primary market dealer, a provenance that further burnished its fresh-to-market profile. Oddly, that didn’t make a difference.]
Markets go in cycles and one of the most important components of a cycle is the market’s ability to attract new buyers to pick up the slack from earlier momentum. In that respect, Christie’s once again was able to show that it could be a real gateway to the world’s newly wealthy. Tully spoke to the Chinese banker who flew in for the sale and bought an Yves Klein painting that is no one’s idea of an easy status symbol:
“I only know about this artist one week ago,” Zeng said after the sale, explaining that he had arrived from Beijing just in time for the auction, the first he’s ever attended. “China needs a blue sky like this,” the brand-new collector observed when asked why he liked the Klein, adding, “Pretty soon we’ll buy more art. Today is just testing the water, and we just want to observe.”
Christie’s Finds Relief in Stable Prices, and a Basquiat Sale (The New York Times)
Christie’s sets record for Basquiat at solid contemporary art auction (The Art Newspaper)