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What should we make of the fact that both Sotheby’s and Christie’s were able to sell more than 90% of the art in their Contemporary evening sales at a time when the market was supposed to be filled with trepidation and uncertainty? Sotheby’s sale of £118m with 93% of the 60 lots sold. The hammer total was 24% above the low estimate or just about in the middle of the estimate range.
About a quarter of the sale was guaranteed in one form or another. Those lots brought in about half of the sale total. Much of the reaction to the sale in the press has been relief couched in the language of confidence.
Even the pros were nervous about these sales as Scott Reyburn discovered when he spoke Europe’s leading gallerist:
“I’m surprised, but at the same time not,” Thaddaeus Ropac, an international dealer with galleries in London, Paris, and Salzburg, Austria, said on Tuesday night, after a Christie’s sale at which 95 percent of the works found buyers. “There’s so much creation of wealth, and that wealth is getting more concentrated,” Mr. Ropac said. “The art market always gets a fraction of it. The buyers just need a sense of trust.”
Others might have gotten over-enthusiastic in interpreting the results (though the day sales—a subject we’ll get to in another post—might actually bear this out) in speaking to Colin Gleadell:
“It’s a bulletproof market,” commented art advisor Rory Howard, referring to the imagined threats posed by Brexit and Donald Trump. “But you can still buy at reasonable prices.”
With confidence re-affirmed, perhaps we will see the auction houses step back from so heavily managing the sales and encourage their clients to take bigger risks to achieve bigger results.
Sotheby’s makes a point in its press materials that the firm has now seen three Contemporary Evening sales with results in the ~90% range. The first two of those cycles were sales where the company’s new leadership team’s reputation and confidence in the firm was on the line. No price was too high to pay for Sotheby’s to have a shot at market relevance then and dominance now.
Market demand may be stronger in 2017 than 2016 but that doesn’t mean the ~90% sell-through rates are indications of indiscriminate demand. The well-managed sale comes at a cost. For example, there was the 1982 Basquiat that sold below the low estimate:
Guaranteed by Sotheby’s at a level that dealers such as Mr. Ségalot described as “aggressive,” it nonetheless managed to sell for a bid of £12 million, albeit at what looked like a seven-figure loss to the auction house.
Gleadell made a similar point with the record price for a Baselitz that played out much like the record price for an Albert Oehlen sold the night before:
A classic 1965 Georg Baselitz “Hero” painting, Mit Roter Fahne, was not merely guaranteed—Sotheby’s owned a part or all of it. But the market decided the estimate of £6.5-8.5 million was a bit high. None of the galleries associated with the artist—White Cube, Gagosian, Thaddaeus Ropac, or Michael Werner—lifted a finger as it sold after a single phone bid for £7.5 million ($9.1 million), yet another artist record set on a sole bid from a guarantor.
You can’t blame either house for trying to push the market toward newer names and excite some interest, a point that Reyburn picked up:
“Auctions are always the barometer of the market,” said Alexander Platon, a senior director at Marlborough Fine Art, adding that these London sales corresponded with today’s tastes.
“The selection of artists is very limited,” Mr. Platon said. “It’s not a market where people experiment. Everyone’s after the same thing. It’s a strong, stable situation.”
One of those limited names—at least now after the last few years of market ascension—is Wool; another is Twombly. There a work on paper that had never been on the market benefitted from the recent attention to the artist at museums like Paris’s Centre Pompidou. Gleadell caught the story:
A 2007 painting by Christopher Wool was guaranteed but attracted competitive bidding above the estimate from Andrew Fabricant, finally selling for £7.1 million ($8.6 million). An elegant black Alexander Calder mobile, Black Lace, sold above estimate for £5.2 million ($6.3 million) to Brett Gorvy, now of the Lévy Gorvy Gallery. (The same gallery’s Lock Kresler, meanwhile, bought a crinkly white textural painting by Alberto Burri within estimate for £1.5 million, or $1.8 million.) A posse of bidders including dealers David Nahmad, Andrew Fabricant, White Cube, and collector Dimitri Mavrommatis raced in pursuit of a classic 1963 painting-on-paper by Cy Twombly before it sold to a U.S. phone bidder for a triple-estimate £2.6 million ($3.2 million).
The few names that sell are not consistent, nor is that status easy to maintain. Among the Italians, one artist came out of nowhere two or three years ago. But that market may have run its course:
a Paolo Scheggi three-dimensional cutaway red canvas from the ‘60s, which had sold in Milan in 2007 for £19,000 ($23,112), was estimated at £250,000 but did not attract a bid. […]
Finally, Nate Freeman noted one of the anomalies of the evening. When a good work by an artist with an active market fails even at a strong estimate, market pros start looking for other explanations as they did with this:
Another big pass was Jean Dubuffet’s L’Homme au Papillion (1954), which had a low estimate of £3 million ($3.65 million) that no bidder was able to breach.
The Master, Judd Tully, flagged one of the more interesting price movements in the not-heavily traded artist Miquel Barcelo. The cheapest of the three lots saw the most bidding and price appreciation even as the well-established work, Muletero wound up making a small loss for the consignor who owned it for a handful of years:
Miquel Barcelo’s dramatic and heavily impastoed bull fight, stadium scene, “En Los Medios” from 1990, in mixed media on canvas and measuring 35 1/8 by 35 1/8 inches brought a torrid £1,148,750/$1,399,178 (est. £500-700,000). A related though somewhat smaller work from the exalted series, “Pase de Pecho” sold at Christie’s on Tuesday evening for an almost identical £1,145,000/$1,399,190 and earlier on Wednesday, Barcelo’s more grandly scaled “Muletero,” also from the 1990 series, and the cover lot at Phillips, made the top lot price of £2,949,000 /$3,598,962 (est. £2.5-3.5 million).
London Art Auctions May Herald a Market on the Upswing (The New York Times)