In all of the talk about the Spring Contemporary art sales where many commentators focused on the 90% drop in Christie’s curated evening sale or the weakness in the Impressionist and Modern art market, not much has been said about the drop in sales volume for the three major houses Contemporary art day sales.
These sales are the live blood of the art trade where dealers, advisors and collectors buy stock, spot trends and the auction houses make the majority of their profit because the works in these sales aren’t as competed for. So here’s where an auction house will fatten its margin or just make its operating costs.
The big news of the weeks was that Sotheby’s day sale was down substantially to $54m. The New York Contemporary art day sale at Sotheby’s hasn’t been at that level since 2010. With such a striking pullback, what does the sale mean? And where did Christie’s and Phillips come out?
Instead of looking at historical charts of the sales, we have some detailed analysis of each sale from Lisa Prosser who is the data guru at Athena Art Finance. Prosser’s infographics show some very interesting details about each of the sales.
Take Sotheby’s, which saw the bigger drop, where the hammer price on the sale came in below the low estimate by 5%. That tells us demand was weak and estimates were too high. Nonetheless, only 16% of the works were sold below the low estimates and a healthy 77% of the works found buyers. That suggests consignors were more than willing to stand their ground and try to get their minimum price privately.
Sotheby’s day sale was never going to reach the levels of previous years. Whether that is because Sotheby’s made a strategic decision to focus on greater visibility for its Evening sale lots or the lack of manpower from recent staff loses made it harder to shepherd a substantial day sale, hitting the high end of the estimate range would still have given Sotheby’s a shortfall from the previous year.
Sotheby’s also guaranteed seven of the day sale lots, an unusual practice borne out by the fact that three of those guaranteed lots sold below the low estimates. There was some good news in the day sale when a Calder mobile made a strong price almost twice the high estimate at $2.17m.
Christie’s day sale contained 50% more works than at Sotheby’s. The results were also just about 50% higher with Christie’s making $50.3m in the morning and $32.4m in the afternoon. Christie’s, too, only saw fewer than one fifth of the works sell below the low estimate.
Hidden in the Christie’s morning session was a boomlet for Otto Piene’s work where seven lots with a total combined high estimate of $159k were sold for $543,575.
At the Phillips day sale, there was a smattering of lots that were guaranteed and substantial number (29%) that sold below the low estimate. But that’s Phillips’s distinctive way of doing business.