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The London sales in March of 2017 reaffirmed the fundamental strength of the Contemporary art market, not through astounding prices or record-setting sales of the world’s most famous artists but through a broad base of transactions. Although the top lot was a work by Gerhard Richter, the artist who accounts for the largest share of the Contemporary art market’s public turnover these days, the sales showed continuing signs of market rotation as new names increased their value on the auction block.
The top line figures are quite healthy. Sales at Phillips, Christie’s (including the Saatchi sale), Sotheby’s and Bonhams totaled £276m from 750 lots sold out of 854 offered or an almost unbelievable 87.8% sell-through rate. To further underscore the broadening base of the Contemporary art market away from the eight-figure mega-trophies, the top ten lots only accounted for one third of the sales total.
Among the sold lots, 41% made price above the high estimate. That’s a big number. Add the lots sold within the estimates and more than two-thirds of the sellers got the price they wanted or more. Only 16% of the lots had to compromise and take a bid below the low estimate.
To get deeper into the composition of the sales, let’s look at the market share of the individual artists. Andy Warhol’s market remains in hibernation. His work, which was led by a Marilyn reversal work that made a disappointing £2.85m price below the estimates, garnered only £6.58m in total. That represented only 2.4% of the overall auction turnover.
Contrast that with Gerhard Richter, who also had the top lot which accounted for a substantial portion of that total, and the 10.5% market share he achieved. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s £23m in sales was 8.4%. Alexander Calder accounted for 5%; Jean Dubuffet had 4.5%; and Georg Baselitz hit 3.6%.
That fifth-place position is new for Baselitz driven by the £7.47m record achieved for one of his works, even though that work sold to a third-party guarantor. All together, the list of 12 artists below accounts for 49% of the sales. That may seem very top-heavy but it demonstrates progress for more names. In addition to Baselitz, strong results for Stingel, Barcelo, Wool, Oehlen and Uecker reveal continuing momentum for several artists and revived markets for others. What all these artists share is long-term name recognition and market activity. Adrian Ghenie is the exception.
To further demonstrate this idea of rotation and market breadth, look at the top 33 lots from the week. You can see from the color-coded chart below, that only 5 of the top 25 lots were bid above the estimate range (shown in green.) The majority of the lots (14) sold within the estimate range and one fifth of the lots were sold at compromise prices.
In the £2.4 to £2.7m price range, there were a number of works bid into that region exceeding their estimates.
Switching to the day sales, the top of the list turns green revealing the energy in the Contemporary art market. The color distribution makes a point but the variety of artist names on the list is probably more significant. There are multiple works by George Condo and Baselitz but few other repetitions among these top 37 day sale lots.
Just looking at the lots that so the most aggressive bidding in the Evening sale (below) and the Day sale (further below), we can see some patterns in bidding for Carol Rama, Gunther Uecker and Gerhard Richter. Beyond that, though, there’s a wide variety of names.