The Warhol market may have dried up by 74% in 2016 but that doesn’t mean it disappeared. During the marquee New York sales in November, 47 works by Contemporary master were offered. The total sale was $66m with 85% of the lots finding buyers. That $66m represented 8%—, a diminished figure but still a very meaningful one— of the entire week’s sales of Contemporary art totaling $821m.
To give you a sense of Warhol’s relative strength within the Contemporary market. The average price of a work of Contemporary art sold in New York in November was $815k. The average price of a Warhol sold in the same period was $1.4m.
Remember, this is no ordinary Warhol market. Owners of the most valuable works seem to have no incentive to sell. As a result, there are few works on the market that were estimated above $3m. None of the works priced above $1m failed to find a buyer. Only three works priced above $150k failed to sell or was withdrawn.
The inference that can be drawn from this is simply that there is a seller’s strike the Warhol market. The top Warhol of the week was a large white Fright Wig painting (sourced from one of the well-known engrossers of Warhol’s work) that sold near its low estimate but still attracted bids. The $24.4m selling price, achieved after more than one bid, gave the market confidence.
The sense that supply is constraining the market is enhanced by the lopsided distribution within the auction houses. Christie’s had a cache of heretofore unseen works that boosted their total lots to 31 out of the 47 on offer. Phillips had five; Sotheby’s had a chaste nine but those included the most expensive (the fright wig) and some of the works that were most fought over like the Lenin and the Russell Means, as well as a good Jackie that sold quite well for $1.27m.
Bonhams did well in the game selling a gold Jackie for which they got the highest hammer ratio (or result above the low estimate.)
Speaking of hammer ratios, the chart at the top of the post shows the distribution of Warhol sales across the week. The x axis along the bottom is the hammer ratio. So the works farther to the right are the ones that were most competed over.
The y axis is price. In the chart at the top, we tried to make relative price more apparent by making the size of the bubbles a reflection of the overall price or y axis. What you can see in that chart is that the most valuable works sold closest to the estimate range. The one exception being that Lenin which made an impressive $8.1m.
As the works come down in value—and presumably quality—the distribution of prices widens. Several works sold below the low estimate and handful made strong sales above the estimate range.
A full half of the lots offered failed to make the low estimate in bidding or did not sell. Considering the strong sell-through rate, consignors were clearly willing to compromise. Again, this may be a reflection of the quality of works on offer where the seller is simply fishing for a result and happy to take whatever is achieved.
You can see the dynamic described above a little more clearly in the chart below where the bubbles have been removed: