How quickly things change. Six months ago, the art market was tense with anticipation of a dramatic drop in auction sales volume and Sotheby’s was in the midst of restructuring. Three months ago, conventional wisdom had Sotheby’s suffering a debilitating brain drain that would leave it even further behind in the battle for market share.
In less than two months, Sotheby’s has gone from being the source of market doubt to the provider of market confidence.
After two well-managed Contemporary art sales, Amy Cappellazzo has shown that she can win the skirmishes in the current market cease fire. More to the point, she’s down it with a team of “low-key efficient professionals,” as one collector put it, from Sotheby’s own bench. No stars were hired, no egos inflated.
As with Gregoire Billault in New York, Alex Branczik put together a sale that beat expectations not only with surprise hits like Jenny Saville’s Shift which sold to the Long Museum’s Wang Wei for an exhibition next month but also with strong relationships to consignors that enabled the team to get reserves lowered on 20% of the lots.
There’s no telling how long the truce will last in the auction market. Sellers are in no hurry to divest themselves of assets; and, when they do, they seem to be selling privately.
In the meantime, Cappellazzo and Sotheby’s have demonstrated that they can close ranks, march in step and be disciplined. When the auction wars resume, as they surely will someday, Sotheby’s is likely to be a much more formidable opponent than Cappellazzo’s rivals previously imagined even just a few short months ago.
The sale estimate brought us back to June 2009 levels but that doesn’t mean there were no profits to be made. Take the first lot which appreciated 10 fold in sterling terms since 2010 as demonstrated by The Master, Judd Tully, shows in his report:
The sale started with an incendiary flash of fireworks, thanks to a quartet of works from a private Swedish collection. Yayoi Kusama’s densely patterned 2006 acrylic on canvas “Infinity Nets” attracted five bidders, who pushed it to £677,000 ($900,000) against an estimate of £200,000 to £300,000 ($264-396,000). It last sold at Christie’s London in June 2010 for £63,650.
That should not suggest there’s easy money in market arbitrage these days as Tully notes in this later lot that was bought 18 months ago in Paris but sold at a wash this week in London. Not quite the Brexit discount everybody’s talking about:
Joan Mitchell’s mural-size 1973 diptych “They Never Appeared with White,” marked by a white void on the left side, sold for £1,565,000 ($2.1 million) against an estimate of £1.3 million to £1.8 million ($1.7-2.4 million). It last sold at Christie’s Paris in December 2014 for a higher hammer price of €1,297,500.
Speaking of the Brexit discount, it seems to have become every dealers talking point, including Helly Nahmad who spoke to Bloomberg:
“Brexit might be a good thing for the art market,” said Helly Nahmad, a New York art dealer. “When the stock market is uncertain and volatile and bond yields are negative or extremely low, art is a great alternative investment. It’s like a safe haven.”
Speaking of safe havens, the New York Times spoke to a dealer with one foot in Europe and the other in the UK:
“There is still a lot of money around,” said Alex Lachmann, a private art dealer based in London and Cologne, Germany. “Wealthy people make money in this kind of crisis and they’re looking to buy important things. The exchange rate was very important. There were a lot of American buyers.”
There were also a lot of Asian bidders and buyers. But let’s not make this all about exchange rates as the specialist who put the sale together tried to say after the sale, according to Bloomberg:
“It was a hard sale to put together and the referendum didn’t make things easier,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said afterward. The results proved that “passion for art collecting overrides broader concerns,” he added.
Colin Gleadell puts some substance onto that assertion. Last night’s top buyers were hardly unknown opportunists:
[T]he top lot, and a big surprise of the night, was the record $9 million (£6.8 million) for Jenny Saville’s large, square Shift (1996-7), of naked women squashed together like sardines, that was shown at Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition, “Sensation” show in 1997. The $2–3 million (£1.5–2 million) estimate intimated that the previous $3.3 million (£2.1 million) record could be broken, but even Sotheby’s staff were surprised when three telephone bidders, and Saville’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, on his cell phone, took the bidding into unknown territory. Finally Gagosian succumbed to the greater ambitions of Wang Wei, the Chinese collector buying for her Long Museum in Shangahi, which is about to stage an exhibition devoted to female artists of the West.
Asian bidders were a powerful force tonight, buying two other works in the sale’s top lots. A 1955 mobile by Alexander Calder sold above estimate for $3 million (£1.9 million), and Adrian Ghenie’s large interior, The Hunted, sold for a multiple estimate $2.5 million (£1.9 million).
Nor was anyone suggesting that the strong prices paid for Dubuffet were driven by Asian buyers or exchange rates:
The postwar sector was led by Jean Dubuffet, for whom demand is clearly on the rise. After a rare ‘beard’ painting by the artist sold at Phillips in May for $3.1 million, Sotheby’s found another slightly larger one, and sold it for an even better $4.2 million (£3.2 million) which was double the estimate.
Also, there was plentiful evidence that not all artists were in up markets:
Also from a private European collection, but telling a different story, was a Zeng Fanzhi self-portrait which US collectors Howard and Patricia Farber sold extremely advantageously in Hong Kong in 2011 for HK$37.6 million (£2.9 million). Tonight it took a loss selling for $2.7 million (£2 million).
If there were any visible weaknesses tonight, it was in the market for Italian artist, Enrico Castellani, whose prices have been spiralling upwards recently. But tonight, two shaped canvases went unsold with estimates between $465,000 to $2.4 million (£350,000 to 1.8 million).
Despite those market disappointments, the overriding issue in the art market is the lack of supply which is another way of saying that collectors have no good reason to exchange works of art for cash.
Here’s how Cappellazzo herself summed it up to the Antiques Trade Gazette:
“It was all hands on deck after Brexit,” she said. “But tonight we saw there’s no market problem, only a supply problem.”
A Stunningly Successful Session at Sotheby’s (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Amid ‘Brexit’ Concerns, Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Brings Shot of Oxygen (The New York Times)
Sotheby’s London Post Brexit Sale (artnet News)
Market rides Brexit fears at Sotheby’s Contemporary art sale as major record set for Jenny Saville (Antiques Trade Gazette)