Even in its reduced state, the current week of auctions in New York has resulted in slightly more than $1bn in sales. This season’s gigaweek was accomplished not by the addition of special sale but by the combination of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary markets into a single weeks of sales.
Will the outcome be sales line-ups that merge the categories and featured evening sales that set the tone across categories and day sales focused on specific sub-markets? Possibly. Or this week’s sales could be a reflection of a broader cautiousness in global markets for real estate, financial products and commodities.
Within this context, Christie’s held its third well-managed Evening sale of the week. This fact was something Christie’s most visible leader was eager to emphasize at the final press conference, according to ArtNews’s Nate Freeman:
“The 90 percent batting rate for the three evening sales is a record, I think?” said Christie’s chairman Jussi Pylkkanen after the sale, referring to the house’s abnormally high sell-through percentage over the past five days. “The sales went on against some uncertainty, but the proof is in the pudding.”
The implication is that Christie’s has proved its sales acumen. Quite possibly, Pylkkanen is also saying that the firm’s sales prove the persistence of the market demand for art. But there’s also a lurking suggestion that the proof here is of Christie’s determination to manage their sales to the appearance of success.
Measuring by this week’s sales as a whole, the Impressionist and Modern category as a subset and last night’s Evening sale at Christie’s in particular, many of the market’s participants are despairing. And they’re reaching for all sorts of explanations. Katya Kazakina polled a few of these:
“The volumes are down hugely,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer of Fine Art Fund Group in London. “People were not prepared to consign major works after the January collapse of the stock market. Everyone was worried if they would be able to sell.”
Comparing art markets against equity markets is rarely productive. In this case, the January stock swoon might have affected consignments but the current market strength ought to have brought out the buyers. Kazakina also heard another variation on the idea that demand remains but supply has been truncated:
“There’s money and there’s willingness,” said Michaela de Pury, a private art dealer based in London, who bought a $15.4 million painting by Cy Twombly for a client at Sotheby’s on Wednesday. Auction houses “need to focus on getting in triple-A works at good prices. Then the market would do very well.”
Finally, Bloomberg’s reporter spoke to a dealer and former auction house employee who was just not impressed:
“There was not much to get excited about in this sale,” said Emmanuel Di Donna, whose New York gallery specializes in modern and postwar art. “They’ve covered their base and often sold on one bid. Feels selective.”
Finally, Kazakina asked a former Old Master dealer his opinion which he was only happy to give her—and another reporter, later on:
“Amazing change in the atmosphere from sale to sale,” said Hugo Nathan, an art adviser based in London. “This feels like an Old Masters auction.”
The New York Times’s reporting team of Reyburn and Pogrebin got something similar from an art advisor:
“It’s getting harder to find great material from pre-1945,” Abigail Asher, an art adviser, said. “There’s a constant supply of fresh works in the contemporary market, and that creates energy. In Impressionist and modern, there are so few great fresh things.”
This pat explanation seems to ignore some of the very good, fresh things that sold to few bids. Another art advisor, who bought a Modigliani for $11.25m, expressed some jealousy of the Contemporary market to The Art Newspaper’s Dan Duray:
[Michael] Altman also picked up a Henri Matisse painting, Portrait aux cheveux boucles, pull marin (Allan Stein) (1907) for $1.45m. “Listen, that’s a lot of money, but not compared to a [Andreas] Gursky from an edition of 12 that’s $4m,” he said, exiting the room.
“There are paradigm shifts in taste,” he said. “It’s not the excitement of the contemporary world, and the lesser-quality works are suffering more than they are in contemporary art.”
That change in taste was evidenced in a number of places. The NYTimes team point to the under-performing Monet Nymphéas which has been a reliable auction standby:
Never offered at auction before, this work — 40 inches square — had not been included in any of Monet’s major museum shows. “There could be nothing, hopefully, easier to sell,” Laura Paulson, Christie’s deputy chairwoman, said before the auction. It sold for $27 million to Glenn A. Fuller of the London gallery Gladwell & Patterson after two Christie’s staff members struggled to connect with telephone bidders. “I robbed that lot,” Mr. Fuller said afterward. “It was an absolute steal.”
The buyer was clearly a subject of much interest to reporters, as Nate Freeman details, though most treated him as a regular feature of the scene:
“Bear with us,” Rumbler said to the man in front, who had a familiar haircut. Ah, that’s right, it was the mystery underbidder on the Francis Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970), which went for $35 million at Sotheby’s Wednesday. I had described him as “a young collector with a mohawk-like haircut wearing a velvet smoking jacket,” but when I approached him at Sotheby’s elevator, he refused to identify himself.
But now having successfully nabbed a star lot (he won the Monet after it hammered at $24 million) from plum seats in the front row, he was more forthcoming: his name is Glenn Fuller, and he works for the London gallery Gladwell & Patterson. His card describes Gladwell & Patterson as “experts in fine art since 1752,” though no one in the press scrum seemed to have heard of them, and Christie’s senior vice president Brooke Lampley thought it necessary to publicly reveal the gallery’s involvement in the purchase because so many reporters were curious (the gallery’s located in Knightsbridge, which isn’t exactly Mayfair). He was buying on behalf of a client.
“I actually got it this time!” Fuller told me upon leaving the Christie’s headquarters, much more animated than he was after losing out on the Bacon diptych. “And I’m delighted.”
The natural question is whether this fresh face is bidding for the now sought-after Asian clientele. Here’s Duray on the matter:
Asian bidding seemed strong on the phones, especially for the Hepworth and another Monet. At the press conference after the sale Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president, put Asian buying at around “20% by lot”, the same as the auction house’s earlier sales in the week.
The Master, Judd Tully, doesn’t get distracted by the flash. He focuses on the market stalwarts:
After a rough go at Sotheby’s on Monday evening, when four of the eight Pablo Picasso works failed to sell, the atmosphere changed for the better on Thursday, with all nine at Christie’s selling, including “Homme assis” from 1969, a late and richly colored Mousqetaire swordsman outfitted in a yellow doublet, which sold to international dealer David Nahmad for $8,005,000 (est. $8-12 million).
It had been exhibited in the now historic Palais des Papes exhibition in Avignon in 1970 that featured Picasso’s recent work from 1969-70.
Finally, Tully offered a different glimpse of what might be going on the market these days as auction houses lose their grip on sales and dealers reassert their role in the marketplace:
New York dealer David Benrimon was thrilled with his purchase, Marc Chagall’s “Amoureux dans le ciel ou Village enneigé (Vitebsk),” in oil on board from circa 1928-30, which he got for $1,145,000 (est. $700,000-1 million).
“I snatched it!,” crowed the dealer.
Overall, “it wasn’t a bad sale,” Benrimon said, assessing the auction as a whole as he exited the salesroom. “I thought it would be much worse.” He credited the better-than-he-expected results with 11th-hour lowering of reserves.
Impressionist and Modern Works at Christie’s Stir Little Excitement (The New York Times)
Christie’s Mild-Mannered Imp/Mod Closer (BLOUIN ARTINFO)