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What did we just see happen at Christie’s last night? On the face of it, we’re hearing that the ‘market is back,’ as Christie’s Contemporary art head Francis Outred was quoted as saying in The Art Newspaper.
The big sale of Peter Doig’s Coburg 3 + 1 More from 1994 for £12.7m was the only significant work from the top works on offer that would have been a familiar market star in the last five years. (The sale was helped by the consignor having bought the work very early in the artist’s market for spectacular returns.)
If the market were back, we’d see Warhol, Richter, Bacon and Koons dominating the sale results. Yes. There was Rothko that sold last night but no one thinks that painting reached its full market potential with the baggage it carried around.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And there were hints in the sale that the artists with long art historical and market records, like Calder and Dubuffet, may be value plays. When the Nahmad family buys the evening’s lead Dubuffet and two Calders, it might be a market signal that long bet is in these artists. After all, the family has extensive experience and holdings in both mid-century stars. Colin Gleadell went into greater detail:
Andrew Fabricant, of New York’s Richard Gray Gallery, bid for it but lost out to London dealer Helly Nahmad, whose family has supported the Dubuffet market for decades and who paid £10 million ($12.2 million) for it. The Nahmads were the strongest bidders in the room on Tuesday, also beating back competition from London dealer Pilar Ordovas to buy a 1955 Calder mobile within estimate for £4.5 million ($5.5 million, and another below estimate for £3.5 million ($4.3 million).
Instead, all of the excitement at Christie’s was in newer names with markets that are fresh with possibility.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Adrian Ghenie, Gunther Uecker, and even Cecily Brown all did exceptionally well. It should also be pointed out that the sale produced strong numbers—just two works were unsold—for good but not great works by many of the market’s familiar names like Fontana, Basquiat, Rauschenberg and Richter.
The long term health of the art market depends upon this kind of rotation. Though not every market pop for an artist is a sign of speculation. At least one reporter exclaimed that the Crosby record price was a sign of the dreaded speculators entering her market. But this price is a reflection of Crosby’s dealer’s successful attempts to squelch any speculation. Indeed, the consignor is the speculator in this scenario, not the buyer.
Meanwhile, there was a lot to learn in the details of the market coverage. The Art Newspaper noted that Christie’s continues to pull in their horns as far as guarantees are concerned:
On the whole, guarantees were slightly down from last year, representing £14.6m or 21.6% of the overall value of the sale compared with £15m or just under 30% in February 2016.
What’s more interesting in these numbers is that Christie’s is holding fast on their guarantees while seeing the sales rise in volume. In the past, the company pursued the opposite strategy. Francis Outred confirmed to The Art Newspaper that this stance is not necessarily new:
“We have adopted a very cautious strategy concerning guarantees over the past two years,” Outred says. “What we are noticing is that our sellers want to see a real marketplace.”
That last slip was probably not the smartest thing for an auction house specialist to say given the overall popular impression that guarantees are a kind of thumb on the scale of the art market. The comment also somewhat contradicted the sale’s heavily managed results.
Christie’s worked hard to make sure consignors reduced expectations and got works sold where a “real marketplace” might have seen them fail. Colin Gleadell gives a great example of that where it used its own balance sheet to cushion the speculative losses of one of its more active clients:
The only lots guaranteed directly by Christie’s were three sculptures of single train cars from Jeff Koons’s first stainless steel sculpture, the 1986 Jim Beam bourbon-filled train, from his “Luxury and Degradation” series. Each was estimated at £400,000-£600,000 (about $490,000-$735,000). One, Jim Beam—Observation Car, fetched $1.6 million at Phillips New York in May 2013. The buyer then, who was the seller on Tuesday, was Kemal Cingillioglu, a member of the Turkish banking family who sits on Christie’s European advisory board. It sold to a Japanese bidder for a loss at £545,000 (about $667,000). Jim Beam—Baggage Car was bought at Sotheby’s in 2010 in London for £634,850 and sold for £557,000 (about $682,000) on Tuesday, while the third, Jim Beam—Log Car, bought from Haunch of Venison when it was part of Christie’s, sold for £497,000 (about $609,000).
Christie’s sale injects confidence into contemporary art auction market (The Art Newspaper)