London’s week of Contemporary art sales isn’t finished yet. We’ve still got tonight’s “curated” sale at Christie’s that seems to have lost its impact in the wake of the UK’s political calamity. But the litmus test of the market is already coming clear.
Brexit has had little or no appreciable effect on the art market. Larger global macro trends—the rise of committed Chinese buyers, the increased focus on lower price points and rotation into “newer” names—have held sway all week.
In part because Christie’s held back its biggest ticket items for its anniversary sale, we can see in last night’s £39m sale a better snapshot of the market.
First, let’s dispel some of the knee-jerk 10%-discount talk we’re hearing as if dealers, auctioneers, collectors and advisors had been issued talking points from Art Market HQ. The Antiques Trade Gazette plucked a factoid—that 25% of the buyers in the Evening sale were British residents—from Christie’s post-sale press conference:
Christie’s reported notable strength in particular from British clients with 10 of the 39 works knocked down to buyers living in the UK. Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president who conducted the sale from the rostrum, said: “I’ve not seen a statistic like that in all the time I’ve been taking Contemporary sales.”
While we’re dealing with Brexit hysteria, let’s also stipulate that the withdrawal of the night’s cover lot, a Gerhard Richter abstract painting targeted for a £14m sale, was an indication of the exhaustion of the trophy Richter market and a sign of how fragile the market for works above £10m is at the moment.
The wonder isn’t why the work was withdrawn by its American “naked” consignor but how Christie’s convinced itself that the Richter market still had demand at this level. If the cover lot had sold at its reserve level, it would have more than doubled the total sales volume for Richters this year, according to Katya Kazakina’s figures on Bloomberg:
Richter’s auction sales declined from the high of $262.8 million in 2012 to $178.7 million last year, according to Artprice.com. In 2016, $17.6 million of his works have sold at auction. In February, another abstract painting by Richter, estimated at 14 million pounds to 20 million pounds, was withdrawn from Sotheby’s in London.
Look at those numbers! The eight-figure Richter market has shut off. Halfway through the year, Richter’s public sales volume is 10% of the previous year. No one doubts the artist’s importance but clearly there’s been change of heart on the demand side. Kazakina spoke to one art advisor:
“There was a froth to that market,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser. “There’s been so many that have come up. Most likely everyone who wanted one has one.”
It should be pointed out, especially with Phillips selling its minor Richter abstract, that the pros in this space will tell you Richter’s market remains strong under $10m.
Formerly a name to conjure with, Richter’s not the only artist who seems to have lost his spell. Here’s Judd Tully on two works with sterling provenance by market-driving artists that both sold below modest estimates:
The sale also contained some Pop art entries. Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 literal depiction of diner culture, “Mustard on White,” hand-painted in Magna on Plexiglas, went to another telephone bidder for £962,500 ($1.3 million), below the estimate of £1 million to £1.5 million ($1.32-2 million). Originally part of the famed New York collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, the painting had been on loan to the Tate Gallery since 1993.
Another Pop piece with a rich provenance, Andy Warhol’s totemic 1962 “Two Dollar Bills (Fronts) (40 Two Dollar Bills in red)” possessed the size (83 inches high by 19 inches wide), subject matter— an homage to money, bearing the face of Thomas Jefferson — and extensive exhibition history of a prime contender, and on top of all that it was one of the artist’s earliest silkscreens. The work, executed in silkscreen ink, acrylic, and pencil on linen, sold to the telephone for £4,450,500 ($6 million) against an estimate of £4 million to £6 million ($5.3-7.9 million). The underbidder was New York and London dealer Per Skarstedt. It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 1988 for $319,000.
A good gauge of demand is the response to an auction’s tone-setting early lots. At Christie’s last night, the curtain raisers never really got off the ground, as Nate Freeman at ArtNews points out:
There was a slow start, as the room passed on Glenn Ligon’s I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance just four lots into the sale, and a lackluster vibe in the room caused Pylkkanen to complain, “Lots of talking here, not so much bidding.” But things picked up by the time the first of the two Basquiats, Self-Portrait (1981), hit the block and faced ten bidders on the telephones and several in the room.
Those Basquiats, part of a trove from actor Johnny Depp, seem to tell an interesting story. One of the Basquiats went to a telephone manned by a Christie’s specialist who deals with Asian clients (not that that means all that much.) Though Christie’s Brett Gorvy underscored that buyers from Asia were driving the sales, especially among the new artists gaining traction like the star of this cycle, Adrian Ghenie. The New York Times picked up on this:
“Asian bidding was across the scale on artists like Basquiat, Ghenie and Scully,” he said. “We haven’t seen that up to now.”
Colin Gleadell added a bit more to that observation on artnet news:
As at Sotheby’s, Asian bidding was prominent. Apart from buying the top Basquiat and the Lichtenstein, Asian buyers bought works by Hurvin Anderson, Roman Opalka,George Condo, Zeng Fanzhi, and Sean Scully, paying a sterling record of £902,500 ($1.21 million) for the 1992 abstract, Eve.
Judd Tully homed in on the Zeng Fanzhi which showed a significant price appreciation, unlike the one sold the night before. Timing is everything in markets but the prices confirm Zeng’s strong audience:
The lone Chinese artist entry, Zeng Fanzhi’s rakishly stylish 2003 oil-on=canvas self-portrait “Untitled,” made £626,500 ($836,000) against an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000 ($528-792,000). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for £192,000.
Chines buyers were the only ones interested in Depp’s Basquiats. One went to Acquavella. He also spoke to the New York Times:
William Acquavella, who said he purchased the Basquiat self-portrait to sell at his gallery, added that caution persists in the market. “There just isn’t that much quality — pickings are slim — but it’s been like this for a while,” he said. “The auction houses aren’t offering as many guarantees and dealers are doing more privately. Sellers don’t want to take the risk. It’s a volatile time, and people need the assurance of getting the price they want.”
Bloomberg also confirmed the supply issue:
“People are here to buy,” said Neil Meltzer, New York-based private art dealer and adviser. “There’s a lot of demand. The issue is supply.”
Colin Gleadell added a little color to that same subject by showing the supply issue seems to punish works that seem leftover like the Paul McCarthy Mechanical Pig from Christie’s inventory:
The pig had been part of the Essl collection in Austria, a trove which Christie’s had sold in 2014. It became Christie’s property as it had been guaranteed and bought in with a low estimate then of £1 million. Now with a reduced £400,000 estimate, it sold for £362,500. Another bought in lot from the Essl sale was a multi-panel painting by Martin Kippenberger that originally had a £2-3 million estimate on it, and now sold for a reduced £1.45 million ($1.95 million).
Johnny Depp’s Basquiat paintings fetch £7.6m at Christie’s (Antiques Trade Gazette)