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It is never a good measure of the effect of an systemic event to look at the sales closest too that event. One need only look at the art auctions right around the time of the failure of Lehman Brothers and the bailout of AIG in the Fall of 2008. Damien Hirst had a very successful sale on the day of Lehman’s bankruptcy. The Frieze sales that followed in the next month were sober but not cataclysmic. By November, the mood had darkened and sales suffered.
Looking for signs of how art will fare under a Trump presidency is premature. Will we know more in February, May or June? Sure. But until then, the art market should be judged more on the internal dynamics than as a response to the US election.
That didn’t stop Sotheby’s Jeremiah Evarts from declaring the art market safe from Trump, according to ArtNews’s Nate Freeman:
“We definitely had the election in mind, but since today was a good night, all signs indicate that the market won’t be affected,” Everts told ARTnews. “There’s a buffer—for better or for worse, there’s a buffer.”
As noted in a previous post, Sotheby’s approach to the Impressionist and Modern evening sale is somewhat instructive. The sale had an 81% sell-through rate. Given the new model of managing sales tightly, that seems low but not worryingly low.
Kelly Crow remarked on the absence of eager bidders in the Wall Street Journal:
Thin bidding sapped the energy from Sotheby’s York Avenue salesroom, which met its $142.8 million expectations but only managed to find buyers for 81% of its offerings—a passable performance but a long way from the runaway exuberance of a couple of years ago.
The sale’s star, Munch’s 1902 “Girls on the Bridge,” sold for $54.5 million to an anonymous telephone bidder that Sotheby’s had locked in before the sale using a financial mechanism called an irrevocable bid, whereby the bidder pledges to bid and buy a work if no one else steps up in the sale. (In exchange for taking such a risk, Munch’s winner received a $2 million discount.) The Munch was sold by Swiss-based collector Larissa Chertok and was estimated to sell for about $50 million.
Whether the bidders were put off by the presence of irrevocable bids is hard to measure. The three works that had irrevocable bids attracted no other competitors. Top works of the evening that significantly out-performed estimates like the Picasso bronze bust and the Moholy-Nagy which set an artist’s record did not have a back up bidder. Then, again, several of the works in the top 10 without third party guarantors also sold on or near low estimates. There’s simply not enough information to judge.
It is more likely that the Impressionist and Modern market has become a picker’s market. Instead of competing for the obvious works, buyers are trying to use their own information advantage—whether that’s market information or connoisseurship—to go after a few special works.
One of the surprise successes at Sotheby’s was a Picasso bronze bust that was bought for $8.4m by Pyms Gallery’s Alan Hobart. ArtNews’s Freeman asked him about it:
“I viewed it, I vetted it, I bought it,” Hobart said after the sale. He said that the work was “extremely rare,”
Galerie Gmurzynska’s Matthias Rastorfer also bought the $6m Moholy-Nagy having been involved with selling the work years before. Eykyn Maclean’s Chris Eykyn also pursued the Otto Mueller work, above, that did so well by making $1.45m against a $800k high estimate.
Judd Tully remarked upon the strong bidding for Joan Kend’s Rodin:
Auguste Rodin’s 14 ¾ inch high bronze “Penseur, petit modele,” cast posthumously sometime between 1930 and 1940, hurdled its estimate and sold to a telephone bidder for $1,752,500 (est. $700,000-1 million).
More importantly, Tully flagged some of the works that were public repeat sales. There is where we can also see that the market has been pretty good to most buyers. For example, again from Tully:
Maurice de Vlaminck’s Fauve-period landscape, “Le Verger” from 1906, blazing in summer colors, sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for $7,550,000 (est. $7-10 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2006 for £2.36/$4.3 million.
That’s a 75% gain in price paid in 10 years. Like the Munch which rose 80% in the eight years since it was last purchased, those sales are solid, if not spectacular returns. Further down the scale, we see other nearly impressive gains in percentage terms.
Francis Picabia, “Saint-Tropez, effet de soleil” from 1909, almost a dead-ringer for a Post-Impressionist Signac, went for $1,632,500 (est. $1.2 1.8 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2006 for £612,800/$1,065,739.
There’s another way to phrase the idea that the Impressionist and Modern market requires an eye for the right work that may be undervalued. The Financial Times offers it in this quote from the Nahmad family who have a very big presence in the market:
Art buyers are experiencing a shift in the market’s dynamics, according to dealer Helly Nahmad. For the past decade, masterpieces have been met with strong demand, while lesser works lagged behind. Masterpieces continue to do well, he said, but now works that “people see as mediocre are also achieving high prices because there is so little material available”.
“People are realising the great masterpieces are so few and far between — if they want to own these artists, they want to have what they can get their hands on. The market has a serious supply problem.”
A Mild Bang at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Sotheby’s Impressionist auction falls short of estimates (Financial Times)