Friday’s dramatic success of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Hannibal which sold for £10.6m ($13.2m) at Sotheby’s up ends most of what we are told about the art market.
One of the prime directives of the art market is that a work that has been offered at auction and fails to sell has been “burned.” That is, the work is now considered damaged and unsaleable until a significant amount of time passes.
In the case of Hannibal, that significant time is now fewer than 12 months. In November of 2015, the Basquiat could not meet the reserve price of $8m; on Friday, it made twice the final bids of the previous year.
The work’s failure was chalked up to its involvement in a Brazilian banker’s attempt to smuggle the work into the US more than a decade ago. On Friday, there were at least seven bidders. Two were committed enough to drive the price beyond Sotheby’s (and the Brazilian government’s) expectations of the previous session.
What changed? The art market did but in the opposite direction. That Basquiat failed in a bouyant market and succeeded in what was widely viewed as a torpid market until last week.
That didn’t stop some pontificators from coming up with implausible explanations. Here’s the quote machine Philip Hoffman trying his best to make sense of the sale.
“Prices defy gravity,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer and founder of Fine Art Group in London. “Some of it is down to the fact that the pound collapsed, so everything seemed cheap. The Basquiat and Richter are international pictures. They were 20 to 25 percent cheaper in sterling terms than they were six months ago.”
Six months ago is a curious reference point. The Basquiat was last offered in New York in November 2015 when the pound was trading at $1.51. The low estimate on the work was $8m which would have have been around £12m plus fees. The work is being sold by the Brazilian government who might have had the reserve lower than the $8m estimate. With fees, the painting would have surely cost £12m to a UK buyer or more than last week’s £10.6m.
But it is also equally important to the Basquiat market that Adam Lindemann sold a work in May that re-calibrated the Basquiat market by setting a new record price for the artist at $57m. Were the numerous bidders who showed up for last week’s sale emboldened by the exchange rate (only if they were UK buyers because the work still cost far more in dollar terms than it would have a year earlier) or would they be attracted by the impression that Basquiat’s market could be starting a new leg higher?