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The market for Richard Prince’s work has seen its share of ups and downs in recent years. His most valuable works have always been the series of nurse paintings. Yet those images have had their own rocky history on the market. In July of 2008, Overseas Nurse was sold for £4.2m or nearly $8.5m on the day. Six years later, Nurse of Greenmeadows achieved that price level again.
In the interim, nurse paintings have appeared sporadically on the market. Runaway Nurse sold for a solid $6.8m in Nov. 2011 at Phillips. Five years later, Runaway Nurse #2 sold at Christie’s in May for a record $9.6m. That record sale brought more nurses to market last November in New York. Aloha Nurse sold at Sotheby’s for $4.73m; Nurse Elsa made $5.85m at Christie’s two nights before. Both of those works sold on or around the low estimate.
That pattern seems to be a hallmark of Prince’s market. Many of his series sell quite well but the prices often struggle to meet the consignor’s expectations, if the estimate range is anything to go by. This suggests anticipation is often greater among owners in Prince’s market than demand is among buyers.
In an attempt to understand this dynamic, we analyzed the data from the November sales in New York. (There were not enough significant sales in London recently or even at the Armory Week sales in New York.) We also looked back at the last four years of Prince’s sales to see what that data might explain about Prince’s market.
This chart of Prince’s sales from November reveal a fair bit about his market. Here we have mapped the 15 works (out of 20 offered) that sold in New York. The total hammer price was $17.3m against a low estimate of $18.2m. The final premium price for the 15 works was $20.7m.
The hammer ratio overall is a disappointing .95 which simply indicates the sellers had greater expectations than the buyers. In the end, they were willing to compromise and accept prices below the low estimate.
Five consignors held fast and watched their works get bought in (against estimates in the low five-figures and mid-six-figures); six more compromised and accepted prices below the low estimate; another eight achieved prices within the estimate range, though the majority were at or near the low estimate.
Only one work in November was the subject of the kind of active and aggressive bidding that leads to a price in excess of the high estimate.
Interestingly enough, the bidding that went well-above the high estimate was for a relatively recent (made in 2012) Cowboy painting and estimated at between $700k and $1m. These late cowboys have much in common stylistically with the nurse paintings. The final hammer price was $1.2m over a $1m high estimate.
Going up to the $1m+ price range for Prince’s work, lots were fairly evenly distributed across the competitive spectrum. At that price level, there were two lots that sold for less than the low estimate; two lots that sold within the estimate range; and that final cowboy work mentioned above.
Above $2m, a joke painting and the two nurses found themselves at the low side of the estimates, suggesting that there are buyers for Prince’s more expensive works, just not enough to push bidders past the reserve prices.
With that in mind, we thought to look at Prince’s auction sales over the past three years to get a better sense of his auction patterns. During that period, approximately 200 works were sold in New York and London with 83% of the lots offered finding buyers and a total sales volume of around $155m. That gives Prince an average selling price of around $930k for those venues.
We took the further step of dividing his market into three segments: works below $100k; works from $100k to $1.5m; and art works above $1.5m.
The three segments have very different distribution patterns based upon the hammer ratio. Over $1.5m, 20% of the sold works exceeded the estimates during that period. Almost half of the lots that sold were within the estimate range. There were only three works to sell below the low estimate.
Echoing the November 2016 results in New York, the works above $1.5m sold within that three year period at prices above their estimates were clustered in the $1.5m to slightly more than $3m premium price range. In some cases the low estimates were below $1m. But above $3m, the selling prices gravitate back toward the center of the estimate range.
The simplest explanation for this pattern is the infrequency of activity above $3m and winnowing pool of buyers and thus demand at that level. Sales of Prince’s work above $3m (mostly nurses, a few joke paintings, a few cowboys and Spiritual America) are more negotiations than auctions.
Taking the next step down to the portion of Prince’s market with the most activity from $100k to $1m, we can see a similar sort of pattern (above.) In this price range, the distribution is grouped in the middle of the estimate range at the top above $800k.
Below $700k, the hammer ratio distribution widens revealing a great deal more price discovery for a range of Prince’s work going back to re-photographed advertisements, protest paintings, jokes, cowboys, and girlfriends. This price band has the greatest number of works and is closest to the aggregate average price of Prince’s work sold in this period.
Below $100k there is a smattering of work with the widest distribution, as is to be expected. These lots are highly variable and subject to a broad range of influences that determine the strength of bidding.