Next week is going to be a big test of the market for Rudolf Stingel’s work. Christie’s has five works by the artist with a combined low estimate of $15.7m; Sotheby’s has four works with an aggregate low estimate of $5.4m; and Phillips has a $2m gold carpet work in the Evening sale. Sotheby’s and Christie’s both have works from the same series as the record price paid at auction for a Stingel, the copper-plate versions of the Celotex works created during the artist’s seminal 2007 Whitney show. These works, Sotheby’s six panel version is above, are particularly market friendly as they combine the artist’s ideas about authorship with a sturdy medium and the gold tone that has come to be associated with some of his most valued works.
Either this large six-panel piece or Christie’s four-panel piece from the Zadig & Voltaire collection could easily top the $4.7m top price paid for another four panel piece (and for a instruction painting from 1993) two years ago in the same May sale cycle. Yet both works are dwarfed by the appearance of a massive self portrait of the artist that was also featured in that 2007 Whitney show. Priced at $10-15m, the 11-ft high work is one of four similar works. Two of those are now in the collections of the museums that showed his mid-career retrospective in 2007.
Since Christie’s has a third-party guarantee on the work, it’s safe to assume that not only will a new record be established next week but, also, that the week’s total sales could equal or exceed all of 2016’s sales.
With that in mind, let’s look back at the last ten years of Stingel’s auction sales as his market rose from $330k in sales in 2006 to more than $30m in 2015, paying careful attention to the bidding intensity as well as the price action.
This first chart breaks down all of the auction prices for the 231 lots by Rudolf Stingel that were offered for sale. 198 of the 231 lots found buyers for a 85% sell-through rate. Those 198 lots had an aggregate value (when currency is converted) of $136.74m over the aggregate low estimate of $92m.
There are a couple of observations to make about this chart. First, one can see the works that created market peaks for the artist in 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2015. The first of those works represented was a $1.9m styrofoam work from 2000 made with boots crushing impressions in the material that sold at Phillips for nearly four times the low estimate. The second was from Philippe Ségalot’s Carte Blanche sale at Phillips. It was an exceptionally wide silver instruction painting from 1990.
In both of those Phillips sales there were smaller Stingel works that also significantly out-performed estimates. The same was true in Sotheby’s November 2013 sale where another large self portrait was offered with a guarantee and estimated at $3-5m but only made $2.5m. As you can see from the chart, there’s no price near that $2.5m sale in 2013. But the price did contribute toward an advance in Stingel’s market as five works sold the following year, double the number that had ever sold publicly at that level before.
Those two record $4.75m prices—one for the copper-plate work and the other for that 1993 instruction work—in 2015 had a similar effect. A string of high prices in 2015 brought out a greater number of prices below the record level but above previous levels.
Will 2017 repeat the patterns of 2013 and 2015 when new much higher prices established an upward bound? Christie’s guarantee assures that. The question that remains is whether the other works will exceed their previous benchmarks.
What could prevent that from happening? The chart above shows us the premium ratio for the 231 auctioned lots over the past 10 years. The premium ratio is the price paid divided by the low estimate. As you can see, in each year but 2014 there were unsold lots that failed to meet their reserve price. You can see that range of premium ratios in 2007 betray the narrow market and lack of established prices to provide a reference point.
It wasn’t until 2011 that bidding activity compressed into a fairly tight range as buyers homed in on value. It is not an accident that the three years that saw the expanding spread of bidding ratios happen to also be three years when overall sales volume in dollar terms increased. In other words, as more bidders participate and are willing to push farther beyond the estimate ranges, the result can be increased sales totals.
2013 and 2014 are the two years where bidding remained relatively compressed even as the sales totals moved up substantially. In 2016, the premium ratios gravitated closer to the estimate range.
Finally, let’s look at a chart of Stingel’s sales volume against his average price. The red line, above, is the average price. The green bars are the sales totals for each year. In 2016, the sales volume dropped while the average prices leapt up. We haven’t really seen that pattern before in Stingel’s market. If all goes well next week, the pattern from the previous year of rising totals with more rapidly rising average prices could return. The uninterrupted rise in average prices does suggest that the Stingel market is narrowing and concentrating at the top.