Does anyone seriously believe that today’s Brexit vote had a material effect on last night’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale at Christie’s that brought in only £25m or the lowest total for a London Imp-Mod evening sale since the height of the global financial crisis?
Yes, there is the coincidence of the vote today. One could even go as far as to say there’s the coincidence of low sales totals at both houses in an atmosphere of trepidation about the future just like during the credit crisis.
Coincidence isn’t causation. And there’s such abundant evidence of other factors accounting for the overall reduction in sales volume and the particular weakness of Christie’s evening sale, it is hard to know where to start.
Let’s begin with Christie’s seemingly strong preference for curated sales over category development. Impressionism and Modernism has been a challenging category for Christie’s for several years now. The firm has rallied on occasion to produce sales with impact. Overall, the trend has been toward weak sales with ambitious estimates.
Add into this mix Christie’s focus on promoting the firm’s 250h Anniversary with a second major sale during the Contemporary art week (sound familiar) next week. Plus, there’s the contraction in the Impressionist and Modern category that has been taking place for several years. Individual Modern works achieve the highest values overall but the breadth of the buying is no longer there.
If the UK votes to leave the EU today and those sales go poorly next week, we can blame it all on Brexit.
This week, however, Christie’s seems to have simply gone through the motions without seriously making an effort to shore up the category. In the long run, that might be a smart strategy. The best Impressionist and Modern works can be sold alongside other 20th Century art.
With the press too eager to promote a Brexit backlash, you can’t blame an auction house’s leadership from grasping at the cover story with both hands.
Here’s what Jussi Pylkkanen told Bloomberg (and others) as he blamed the consignment drought on market gyrations in late Winter and early Spring (note the elision of Brexit with overall global macro fears):
“There’s a lot of guessing about what Brexit might mean for all of us,” Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president and the evening’s auctioneer, said after the sale.
But his former colleague, who ran the department no so long ago, was surely closer to the mark when he pointed out the sale had little enticing material with prices that were hard to justify.
Thomas Seydoux said this to the Wall Street Journal:
“I think the market didn’t see it as an exciting sale, and it wasn’t,” he said.
And this to The Art Newspaper:
“It’s a thin market,” said the adviser Thomas Seydoux as he walked out of the room. “It’s hard to establish price points for many of the works tonight.”
Colin Gleadell adds that there were also too many works being resold:
the roll call of unsold lots makes dismal reading, although some had been on the market too recently to attract real interest. A Renoir portrait, bought in Japan last year for £1.5 million ($2.2 million), had the same price for an estimate but failed to sell. A Picasso bought in Paris six years ago for €600,750 ($680,000), found no bidders at £480,000 ($540,000).
Judd Tully tried to dig deeper on the supposed Brexit curse but you can tell from these extended quotes that neither of his interlocutors was willing to put it all on the referendum, especially when the economic damage of the vote will only be apparent much later:
Asked about the shaky evening, New York private art advisor Mary Hoeveler, who bought Klee’s “Flowers in the Vase,” remarked, “I don’t think anyone was surprised by the outcome. The quality of the material matched the response. It was clearly a tough season for consignments, and it’s a strange moment in the European economy, with Brexit looming, among other bellwether events. Sellers held back, and as a result, there weren’t many works to get excited about. The market is hungry for good works, but they’re hard to find right now.”
Jay Vincz, Christie’s London head of department, acknowledged that the house had overpriced in a couple of areas. “Should we say it was a mixed evening? We had a lot of solid prices across different price levels and periods, and when we did have interest, it translated into quite a depth of bidding,” Vincz said. Pressed if he noticed any Brexit anxiety among bidders, he added, “People often tell us why they’re not in the mood to consign a work but don’t often tell us why they’re not in the mood to buy. They just don’t buy.”
When they do buy, observers sometimes want to discount the reasons. The most curious sale of the evening came when Bernard Buffet’s painting of clown musicians made a solid sum nearing £1m.
The Art Newspaper took this as a sign of weakness in the overall market when it should be read as a sign of strength in the Buffet market. Whatever one thinks of the artist’s work, especially a late example like the one sold at Christie’s, there is clearly a growing market for Buffet in Asia and around the world (Sotheby’s made a solid sale in of a similar era’s work in its day sale):
Many pointed to the inclusion of Bernard Buffet’s sometimes derided 1991 canvas ”The clown musicians, the saxophonist” in Christie’s evening sale as sign of how few quality works were available.
Speaking of Asia, Colin Gleadell closes with these bright spots from Christie’s sale. No matter how small the sale, there is always something interesting going on in the art market:
Asian bidding was strong throughout the sale. Salome Tan Bo, from Christie’s Beijing office, bought Fernand Léger’s Deux Figures for a low estimate £1.2 million ($1.7 million), and Marc Chagall’s La Petite Flutiste, within estimate for £1.4 million ($2 million). Chaim Soutine’s Paysage du Midi was snapped up below estimate for £662,500 ($980,000) by a representative from Hong Hong on behalf of a client.
Christie’s Auction in London Sinks on Eve of Brexit Referendum (Bloomberg)
Christie’s, Sotheby’s See Lean Art Sales Ahead of ‘Brexit’ Vote (WSJ)
Modigliani the star as Christie’s auction disappoints on eve of EU referendum (The Art Newspaper)
Modigliani Leads Christie’s Tough $37 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale – (artnet News)
Rough Going at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)