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There is one overwhelmingly obvious conclusion that leaps out from the sales data for Gerhard Richter’s work last Autumn in New York. Demand remains strong for the artist’s work but what’s on offer has been priced to perfection. Competition for lots by the artist, especially the very top lots, is way down. Buyer’s don’t seem to want to pay a penny more than absolutely necessary. Seller’s have little incentive to put their works on the block without price guarantees.
Richter is sure the most valuable and sought after artist alive. But his market may have reached its zenith, at least for now. (Let’s be precise, saying a market has run out of upward momentum is not the same thing as saying it has or will begin to fall.)
Let’s look what we’ve based this conclusion upon.
Seventeen of the 19 works offered in New York last November found buyers for a total premium price of $138m. That means Gerhard Richter’s work accounted for nearly 17% of all Contemporary art sold in New York’s marquee sales. That’s an awesome figure. And it represents a passing of the baton from Andy Warhol to Gerhard Richter as Warhol sold $66m worth of art in the same cycle. For the better part of the last decade and a half, Warhol has been the primary motor of the Contemporary art market. This Fall, his place was definitively taken by Gerhard Richter. Considering that Richter’s top prices still lag significantly behind Warhol’s, and not without reason, one might expect (or hope) that over time there will be considerable price appreciation.
The next leg up for Richter, if it ever comes, is still some ways off. Richter’s sales total was a juggernaut but the prices paid were stuck at the very low end of the estimate range. Nineteen works by Richter were offered in New York at three houses. The large supply was partly based upon the Ames sale at Sotheby’s. The Ames’s had collected Richter in depth. Nonetheless, each house had a major work in the eight-figure range. Only one of the 19 works failed to find a buyer; the other was withdrawn.
Looking at the hammer ratio, or the hammer price against the low estimate, for the aggregate works we can see that it is a very low 1.07 across 19 lots. A 90% sell-through rate is testimony to Richter’s strong market. But even confining ourselves to the sold works, Richter’s hammer ratio barely changes to 1.10.
You can see from the chart above that all but three of the sales are clustered in or below the estimate range. The only sector of Richter’s market where there was any sort of aggressive bidding or real competition was at the absolute low end. Indeed, the one work that sold for a hammer ratio of 9.33, or more than 9x the low estimate, was the sphere pictured above which came in at a relatively inconsequential $35,000 with premium. The two other works that ran ahead of estimates were also in the sub-$50k range.
These figures would have been more indicative of a fully priced market had not one of the large abstracts, the Ames’s A.B. Still (or Quiet,) sold for the high estimate of $30m hammer or nearly $34m premium.As this chart (below) shows, the seven major abstract works sold for prices clustered at the low estimate which was often the price at which the firms had a third party guarantee.
Let’s be clear. The fact that so many of these works could come to market, after nearly a year and a half hiatus in the large Richter abstract market, and sold well is strong evidence that there is great demand for Richter’s work, especially his abstracts.
By the same token, the lack of competitive bidding reveals something else about this market that is quite important. Buyers don’t fee pressure to spend more than they must. There is a feeling, expressed by one of the market’s best-known advisors, that no sale in the Richter market is a last-chance opportunity. There are simply too many of these paintings around. As the advisor says, clients want something unique, important and special. Each one of these large Richter abstracts is unique but not enough to force a buyer to bid at all costs.
It’s also worth noting that one of the key issues with the Richter market is that there are so many owners who bought before the boom. At today’s prices, there’s a large supply of works that can be sold for a great profit which contributes to the smart money believing they will get another opportunity to buy a really good Richter, especially an abstract.
We’ve mapped out that lack of competition for you in the chart (above) showing the seven large Richter abstracts sold in November. Even with the inclusion of A.B. Still (Quiet,) not one of the works was bid above the estimate range. Prices in this market are as full as they can get—at least, for now.