Last night’s tightly managed sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby’s showed two important things. The category can be the locus of the most valuable works but that value is very hard to realize in this particular macroeconomic climate. That’s one.
The other flows from that. Namely, in such a tightly constrained environment, the sales must be heavily managed to prevent a market dislocation or attrition. After more than a decade of auction headlines functioning as marketing for an artist’s ‘worth,’ less visible sales might become a self-fulfilling prophecy of smaller category sales.
Some art market financial advisors don’t seem to have gotten the memo on that development. Here’s a representative of the UK’s Fine Art Group, which is making a big push into the Asian market as an advisor and arranger of art financing, marveling at the seemingly tepid sale of the Edvard Munch, Girls on the Bridge.
“I was surprised by that,” Morgan Long, senior director at the Fine Art Group in London, said. “It was a good picture.”
What seems to have eluded the Fine Art Group is that the $54.4m paid by the irrevocable bidder represents a good 80% gain in price paid over an 8 year period. As a store of value, let alone having the work of art for eight years, that’s not bad. (There were several other repeat sales that provided good benchmarks for measuring return.)
More to the point of Long’s comment. Sotheby’s had already achieved a good price for this good picture before it opened the sale to bidding. The absence of bidding or the absence of the risk involved in setting, say, a $35 – $45m estimate that might have attracted bidders willing to battle it out to $52 or $55m hammer (or more) yielding a final price of $59m or $63m (these are just prices as an example) doesn’t mean the market turned its nose up at the picture.
It means the seller and Sotheby’s were willing to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That seems to capture the tenor of current market.
One suspects that Sotheby’s sees the current sales as a placeholder for future market success. Anchoring the sale with a few really good pictures, making sure most of them were sufficiently insulated from failure, allows the category to keep turning over until there’s a better indication of how best to market and sell 19th and early 20th Century works.
In the meantime, Sotheby’s seems to be working out in the category (and possibly the most visible auctions, in general) a new model of hybrid of public and private offerings.
Sotheby’s Impressionist Auction Has ‘Thinner’ Sales After Election (The New York Times)