This analysis of the Impressionist and Modern sales results—including a look at market share by artist and a list of the most dynamic lots—is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscribers get the first month free on monthly subscriptions. Feel free to cancel at any time before the month is up. Sign up for AMMpro here.
The New York sales of Impressionist and Modern art were mostly tame affairs punctuated by moments of excitement as a few works significantly outperformed expectations. For the category, the entire week brought in $544m with an overall sell-through rate of 76% on 852 lots.
How does this compare to previous years? After a sharp pullback in 2016, the total across both houses has regained a substantial portion of the lost ground but not achieved levels comparable with the salad days of 2014 and 2015. That might not be a bad thing at all.
One of the patterns with the broader art market, and reflected in the Impressionist and Modern market as well, has been the tendency for the market to increase in volume for 2-5 years and then retrench briefly before beginning another climb.
The Evening sale was dominated by the Brancusi bronze head that sold for $57.3m which pushed the total for the top ten lots to $206m which accounted for 44% of the sale’s total or 38% of the combined day and evening sales total. The aggregate hammer ratio for the evening sale was slightly above the low estimate and distribution of Evening sale lots was relatively even across the spectrum from unsold to sold above estimates. But the smallest number of lots were sold above the estimates. This is both a reflection of the market and the quality of the works on the market. In other words, there were only a few lots that attracted deep and aggressive bidding. The average price of an evening sale lot was a very healthy $4.28m.
The day sale had the same sell-through rate as the evening sale but a lower hammer ratio even though nearly half of the lots sold above the estimate range. That is, in part, a reflection of the fact that Sotheby’s held a sale of Marina Picasso’s holdings of ceramics and works on paper. That sale was completely sold out and the bidding was strong reflecting an interest in the Picasso family provenance. The average value of a day sale lot was $108k which reinforces the extent to which works of art from the Modern period have become a store of value.
The combined day and evening sales had a hammer ratio of 1.o1 suggesting a market that is flat or constrained by estimates. The combined average value for an Impressionist and Modern lot in New York this Spring was $873k.
Of course, there are no average lots. The distribution of value in the art market is concentrated in a very few lots. Below is a list of the 35 artists whose works comprised 87% of the Impressionist and Modern sales’ value. You can see that Pablo Picasso is in his traditional position as the market leader with slightly less than 20% of the value or $107m.
Based entirely upon the sale of the bronze head (another work failed to find a buyer), Constantine Brancusi took half of that market share. Quietly, Claude Monet’s seven works made up the third largest block of value at 8.2% of the total or $44m. Not one of the Monets sold above the estimate range (2 sold below) but the sheer value of Monet’s works like the winter landscape and the stamped waterlilies confirmed the artist’s importance to the market.
Chagall, Moore, Max Ernst, Léger, Braque, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Miró round out top ten artists by value. The chart below lists the top 25 lots in the Evening sales. You can see from the color coding that estimates remain strong indicators of sales with only 40% of the lots and the top 10 lots did better than the estimate range.
The following chart shows the works that were subject to the most aggressive bidding. These dynamic lots from the Evening sales show the works that buyers pursued with the most interest. Again we can see how the lower price points attract bidders over the higher value lots. In all aspects of the art market, there is a search for value taking place with bidders willing to chase works that have a compelling story.
That search for works with a unique quality was reflected in the day sales as well as the higher value evening sales. Here we have the top lots from the day sales. It is readily apparent that there were a number of works that were simply over-estimated. But where buyers saw value, like the stone Barbara Hepworth sculpture that can be seen at the top of the post, the bidding was sustained and unrelenting.