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For all of the talk about how the Impressionist & Modern (and Surrealism) market is drying up and will soon be like the Old Master market—the occasional astonishing price for a long-held masterpiece punctuating wholesale-like distribution sales of artists known only to a few connoisseurs—the sales in London were demonstration of strength. The sales totals were very strong with combined sell-through rates of 80% which breaks down to nearly 89% across the Evening sales and a 78% for the Day sales. (These figures are for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams Impressionist and Modern sales + Sotheby’s and Christie’s Surrealism sales.)
Even with the Klimt painting making nearly £48m, there was an absence of trophy lots that would drive the top of the market. Taken together, the top ten lots accounted for 44% of the sales total which is a relatively small proportion for a market that is supposedly driven by a few trophy lots.
As you can see from the chart that opens this report, the Evening sales merely recovered to the level of 2014 and 2015. But the day sales were stronger than 2016 but weaker than any of the other three years in the five-year cohort. We’ll get to a closer look at the top lots in the day sales further down in this report. But when we do get there, the charts will show surprisingly strong day sale results.
Looking at a list of the top lots from the Evening sales, it is easy to see how restrained the performance was. Eleven of the top 25 lots were sold within estimates; 9 exceeded the high estimate; and three were sold below the low estimate. On those numbers, the internal dynamics of the sales don’t look terribly strong. Go deeper into the whole Evening sale—where 32% sold above the high estimate; 37% sold within estimates; 20% of the consignors were persuaded to take a bid below their low estimate; and 11% of the works failed—and things start to look a bit better.
Remarkably, the Day sale numbers were very similar: 32% of the day sale lots sold above estimates; 34% within the estimate range; 11% got sold under the low estimate; and 23% failed. Day sales generally have higher unsold rates. These sales are where the business of the art market gets done as collectors and dealers swap stock looking for bargains and overlooked gems. Failure is common in day sales. Having two-thirds of the lots sell within or above estimates is not as common.
Not too long ago, in the years after the reflation of assets following the global financial crisis, Impressionist and Modern works benefited from their long sales records and asset-like status. At one point, valuations got far ahead of demand. The resulting standoff between buyers and sellers continued to choke off the market. What we may be witnessing here is buyers responding to the market capitulation of 2016 where sales were constricted enough to reset sellers’ expectations.
Whatever the cause, an unleashing of previously unseen demand or a revision of seller expectations, the top lots in the day sales were overwhelmingly competed over.
Once we start to strip away the lots that didn’t over-achieve, we can begin to see some interesting performances. Below is a list of the top dynamic lots. By dynamic, we mean they out performed estimates. So this list takes the dynamic lots and ranks them by price achieved.
If we want to see the lot pushed farthest along its estimates, then we’re looking at Felix Vallotton’s Femme au manchon was sold for £389k over a £100k low estimate for the Evening sale and Alfred Kubin’s Sterbender Papst which topped the day sales with a £193k premium price against an £18k low estimate. Just behind Kubin were works by Rodin and Picasso that that sold for 5.5 times the low estimates for £137k and £27,500 respectively.
Among the 45 top dynamic Evening sale lots, there are a number of artists with multiple works. Picasso, of course, leads the list with four. Le Corbusier had three; so did Max Ernst. Henry Moore, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Kees van Dongen, Vcitor Brauner, and Auguste Rodin round out the list.
On the Day sale list, there are many more artists with multiple dynamic lots. Raoul Dufy topped the list with nine dynamic lots. Renoir and Albert Marquet had seven lots each. Foujita and Dalí were next in line with six lots each that were bid over the high estimates. Picasso, Vlaminck, Bernard Buffet, and Andre Brasilier each had five lots out-perform. Max Pechstein’s four out-performing lots sold for a total of £1.7m. Foujita’s six totalled £1.2m. Remoir’s dynamic lots comprised £2m in buying power; Dalí’s did too. Dufy’s were about £1m.