This analysis of the Contemporary sales results—including a look at market share by artist and a list of the most dynamic lots—in New York 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 Contemporary art sales in New York last month bounced off the the 2016 drop in volume sharply recovering to a level quite close to the totals seen in 2013. With a total combined sale of $1.07bn, the Contemporary market alone proved once again that it can support a gigaweek all its own (even if there seems to be no indication of moving back to the old two-week schedule.)
On the whole, the sales were strong but so were estimates. The combined hammer ratio of hammer price over low estimate was a conservative 1.11, suggesting that seller’s expectations remain a potential brake on the market. Of the thousand lots offered, 850 works sold for a powerful 85% sell-through rate. The average price for a work of Contemporary art in the New York sales was $1.06m. That’s a healthy number. As is the combined total of the top ten lots (1%) which accounted for $394m in sales or 37% of the overall total which shows you how top heavy the art market remains.
There may be another way to look at these numbers once we divide our attention between day and evening sales and look at the composition of the sales by artist (below.)
First, let’s just summarize the sales statistics. You can see from this chart that very few of the Evening lots failed to find buyers which reflects the broad use of guarantees, third-party guarantees and the auction houses’ hustling to place the works they solicited for auction. The hammer ratio is only a tiny bit above the overall total (given the disparity in the numbers at this end of the market, it is not surprising the hammer ratio closely reflects the overall ratio.) Of the sold lots, 44% sold within the estimate range, 33% sold above the high estimate and only 22% of the sellers were forced to accept bids below the low estimate.
Given the outsized performance of the Basquiat work at Sotheby’s, it is noteworthy that the top ten lots only accounted for 45% of the Evening sales total. Though the $110m painting surely had some effect on the overall average price of the Evening sale lots which reached $5.3m.
The lots sold in the day, which offer a broader look at the overall health of the Contemporary market, performed quite well. A full 41% of the day sale lots sold for hammer prices above the estimate range. That’s a market of aggressive buyers. Adding the 30% of works that sold within estimates gives us a strong majority of works selling above the low estimate when the hammer falls. Finally, a scant 17% of the day lots were bought in. And the average price of a day sale lot across the three houses was a whopping $231k. Contemporary of any kind is a significant purchase.
These sales also gave us a strong indication of the ways in which the market is shifting away from artists who previously drove the market and toward other names. These are not new names by any means but the rising position of Basquiat, Lichtenstein, Stingel and Rauschenberg. Obviously, the $110m paid for a Basquiat adds a great deal of heft to the artist’s market share which was more than double that of works by Roy Lichtenstein.
Even in his current dormant market, Warhol was present at the same level as Lichtenstein and slightly in advance of Twombly. From there, it is a big drop in market share to Rudolf Stingel—who matched his previous year’s auction total in one sales cycle (let’s see if that’s sustainable)—who was alongside the greatly diminished in volume Gerhard Richter’s works.
Turning to the top 40 works across the three houses, we can see again the fact that estimates at the top of the market are a challenge if not a constraint. Only nine of the top 40 works exceeded their estimates; seven of the 40 were sold below estimates with the rest falling squarely in between. The Francis Bacon triptych made a massive $51.7m but that was actually at a hammer price below the estimate range. The de Kooning at Phillips sold below estimates which was a victory considering the earlier work from the 70s at Christie’s was withdrawn by the sellers. The Polke raster painting, Stingel self portrait, double-sided Lichtenstein and early Koons vacuum cleaner work were all estimated above the level of buyer’s interest. The Warhol hammer and sickle, perhaps consigned to capitalize upon the success of a Warhol Lenin from the previous November was also work that had to compromise to be sold.
Shifting to the top 25 Evening sale lots that were the most dynamic, with bidding that drove the work to multiples of the low estimate, we can see mostly a new set of names (including a few that found their way into the Contemporary sales from the Modern category through estate or collection consignments.) Some of these sales, like the Picabia, were expected to go even higher than they did but had been estimated to attract interest.
For the top 40 lots during the day, the sales had a very different complexion against the estimates. Joan Mitchell’s Three Seasons topped the day lots edging out one of her own works estimated at the same level and a Hans Hoffmann work that disappointed. The Hoffmann was one of the rare top day sale lots to let the consignors down though another work at Bonhams was a strong performer perhaps because it represented a pivotal moment in the artist’s evolution. Another work that struggled against the estimates was a Warhol diamond dust shoes work.
Among the most dynamic lot performances in the day sales were works by a range of artists. The list below is arranged by hammer ratio meaning the works that sold for the greatest multiple are listed at the top. But looking more closely at value in the sales it is worth noting the outperformance of the Ed Ruscha’s two works, Barkley Hendricks, Marlene Dumas, Jack Whitten, Louise Nevelson, Jean Dubuffet, Tom Wesselmann and Wojciech Fangor. All of those artists had outperformances at significant high-six figure levels or more.