This artist’s market report for the 2016 Frieze sales was prepared in part with data gathered and charts created by Athena Art Finance. This report is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscriptions come with a one-month grace period. Feel free to register to read the report and, if you don’t like it, cancel your subscription before you are charged.
The market for Lucio Fontana, the prolific Argentine artist who spent the most important part of his career in Italy, peaked last year during the October Italian sales when 26 works were offered and 21 sold for a combined total of £36.6m. With a large body of work—the slashes—that is both easily recognizable and was created in a seemingly endless variation of color and slashes, Fontana looked to be riding a wave of interest in Italian abstract artists to become a market-driving figure, a bellwether of the global Contemporary art market.
This year, Fontana had 27% fewer works on offer. More important to his market, there was dearth of major works like the black La Fine di Dio that accounted for 45% of 2015’s total sale. Overall, the Italian sales in London were off by 50%. Where the 2015 sales made £83.6m, 2016 could only muster £42m in sales composed of works by lesser known artists.
Fontana was eclipsed by Alberto Burri in total sterling volume and saw Enrico Castellani post results that were 60% of his total. Comparing Fontana’s results year-over-year, the £36.6m of 2015 had shrunk to £8.64m in 2016. The Italian sales were down by 50% but Fontana’s market for the October sales cycle in London was off by more than 75%.
Looking at those comparisons, one might easily conclude the Fontana market is in real trouble. But a closer look at the numbers reveals continuing strength in a market that seems to have shut down more from a lack of supply than waning demand.
The evidence is in these charts provided to us by Athena Art Finance. In the bluntest measure, aggregate hammer prices versus auction house estimates, Fontana performed very well. Hammer prices came down well within the high end of the estimate range (see chart below) with overall performance bridging two-thirds of the gap between low and high estimates.
On a lot by lot basis, the performance was even stronger. (See chart below.) A third of the 19 lots on offer sold above the estimate range; one third sold comfortably within the estimates; and a final third sold for a price below the estimate range or failed to sell at all.
A 95% sell-through rate on Fontana’s lots, even if a third of the consignors only made their reserve prices or had to be persuaded to lower their reserves, is a sign of a market with real demand.
Perhaps more important, only three of the lots offered were slash paintings. Another of the lots was a Concetto Spaziale but from the earlier series with holes in the canvas. The other 19 lots were not from the most successful parts of Fontana’s oeuvre.
The top lot of the sales cycle was a blue work with five slashes that was bid 50% above the high estimate. There was a work that had a greater hammer ratio; but that lot, and the four other lots what were bid above the estimate range, all fell at or below the average price of all 19 lots.
The top lot saw Los Angeles private dealer Stefan Simchowitz eventually outbid Milanese and London dealer Nicolo Cardi and others for the work. The majority of the works that fell within the estimate range were hammered for above average prices. That suggests strong interest in Fontana’s middle market and works that fall outside of the most valued works. That may be more retail buying by collectors than dealers looking for stock that can be turned in the gallery or at an art fair.
Judging solely on the arrayed auction results, whatever has reduced the volume of higher value lots on the market has not also reduced demand. The reduction of those lots may be a sign that Fontana’s market has thinned at the upper ranges. More likely, it is a reflection of 2016’s general aversion to works that try to set new highs for a particular artist, especially one who has seen much market activity in recent years.