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There is no denying that we’re in the midst of Bernard Buffet market boomlet. It might actually be something bigger than that considering the interest in the artist from Asian buyers and the re-assessment of his life in Nicholas Foulkes new biography and a big retrospective of his work last year in Paris at the Grand Palais.
Last June, in London, Christie’s somewhat unexpectedly featured one of his late paintings of clowns and scored a record price of £1m (~$1.5m, then) for the work. In February, the firm Matsart made almost $1m on their landscape of Paris with the Eiffel Tower; two years earlier, a clown painting made more than $750k at Christie’s Shanghai sale. All three of these prices were near or eclipsed the records previously set for the painter more than a quarter of a century earlier when the artist last saw a boomlet.
In the New York sales in November, there were 13 works on offer in a wide range of prices and styles. Just before the sales, Christie’s had sold a small clown painting in Shanghai for $280k, a solid sale. There was only one small clown painting in New York but its quality and sale price within the estimate range did not provide much to measure the appetite for that body of work. Of the 13 works, a solid 10 sold for a solid 77% sell-through rate. Much more relevant was the fact that all but one of the 10 sold above the low estimate. Four of the 10 works exceeded the estimate range and made prices that were sometimes two or three times the low estimate. Clearly there are bidders for Buffet’s work.
This February, Christie’s continues to lead the way in the Buffet market. They had 11 of the 13 works in November. In a few weeks they will have four more works on offer with estimates in and around six-figures in sterling. Sotheby’s has two works at much lower price points and Christie’s South Kensington salesroom has a bouquet of flowers in the low to mid-five-figure range. The work offered during the London sales cycle with the highest estimate, a painting of Versailles offered at £150-250k, is a reminder to the market that two of his top 5 prices at auction were achieved for works depicting Parisian landmarks.
Looking at the lot performance from November, the aggregate low estimate for the 13 works was $1m. The hammer price for the 10 works that found buyers was also $1m. And the premium price for the Buffets sold in November was $1.3m. So the artist’s work has a successful, if not a spectacular, and encouraging week.
we can see that the three works that failed to sell on the auction block were mid-priced works with estimates in the high five figures to low six-figures in dollar terms. At the lowest end of the pricing register, Buffet’s works saw the most aggressive bidding. Below $100,000, three out of the four works that sold beat the estimate range.
One, a small still life, out-performed the estimates by the highest margin that week. Even including the works that were bought in with estimates below $100,000, the Buffets were a balance of three works selling low (or failing) and three works beating estimates. It was feast or famine for the lower-value lots.
One step up the value ladder, there was a clutch of works that performed very well. The standout was a village scene that was offered with a $60-80k estimate range but hammered down for $140,000 which caused the buyer to pay $175k with the premium. That was second best performance of the sales cycle. Along with the other three works that sold within the estimate range and even a work that the vendor had to accept less than the low estimate, these sales suggested the real strength in Buffet’s burgeoning market.
Buyers are clearly looking for works of a specific type and willing to bid for them aggressively once they’ve homed in on the right painting. But even the still life with artichokes that sold below the low estimate gave a hint to the depth of Buffet’s market. There were buyers at a significant price, even if it wasn’t the price the vendor had hoped for.
At the top of the estimate range in November, Buffet’s painting of the Eiffel Tower was bid well into the estimate range and sold for a strong $331,500. With no other competing works, the price confirmed the real heart of Buffet’s market where more than 60 works have sold for prices between $300k and $500k though clustered into two distinct periods. The first period is concentrated during 1989-1990, the crescendo of the Impressionist art boom in Japan (with the occasional outlier sale in 1996.) The second set of sales comes during the last 5 years with the occasional sale in the the few years before.
These repeated price confirming sales in the $300-500k range demonstrate the growing breadth of Buffet’s market.