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The American art sales in May 2017 were weak despite the headline sales of two major works—a Frederic Remington bronze that sold at the top of the estimate range and a Norman Rockwell painting that doubled the high estimate—which can be seen in the sell-through rate and breakdown of the results.
The hammer total of $65.365m was below the $67.34m aggregate low estimate. That gives the sale an overall hammer ratio of .97.
The premium sales total was $78m which means the buyer of an average lot among the 207 sold paid slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars. That’s significant price level for a category that has more sellers than buyers as evidenced by the 69% sell-through rate.
Among the sold lots, 25% made prices above the high estimate. An additional third of the lots were sold within estimate range. An equal number of lots sold below the estimates assigned to the works or went unsold. Had the sellers not been willing to compromise on their asking prices, the sell-through rate would have been a disastrous 39%. The fact that 30% of the lots were sold at prices beneath the seller’s expectations suggests simply too many lots are being brought to auction and that sellers are not confident in the value of their works (or the long-term prospects for those works to appreciate in value.)
Where there is value in the category, it remains strong and concentrated. The top ten works in the sale had an aggregate value of $42m or 53% of the sale’s total. As mentioned above, there was aggressive bidding among the top lots even if three quarters of those lots were sold within or below estimates.
Norman Rockwell’s Two Plumbers sold for $14.975m over a $7m high estimate; Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Victory, a smaller version of the figure that accompanies the artist’s statue of Sherman in Central Park, one of the eight versions of the smaller work is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, sold for $2m over an $800k high estimate.
Two more Rockwells were bid over the estimates among the top lots, a Fairfield Porter work, Marsden Hartley’s Little River landscape sold at Bonhams, works by Asher Durand, Paul Manship and John Singer Sargent, not to mention Norman Lewis’s Street Scene which nearly tripled the high estimate of $150k to sell for $439,500.
Switching to the relative value axis on the sales, we can see from this list of the most dynamic lots sold during the auctions that there is a wide range of artists represented. Naturally, when looking at relative value, it is easier to see large multiples of the estimates on lots that have cheaper absolute prices (and, therefore, smaller absolute gains.) Nonetheless, the list is punctuated with a number of high value lots.
The most dynamic lot was John Singer Sargent’s portrait of his Scottish protégé Robert Brough who died young in a train accident. It sold for an eye-opening six times the high estimate or $523k. We’ve mentioned Norman Lewis’s Street Scene. A Butterworth maritime work and a Herbert Haseltine bronze of a horse were also represented among the dynamic lots.
A work by Taos artist Walter Ufer was sold for twice its high estimate. A smaller version of Saint-Gaudens student Frederick William MacMonnies’s Nathan Hale statue was also aggressively bid upon driving the final price to $271,500 over a $150k high estimate. Works by Thomas Hart Benton, Grandma Moses, William J. McCloskey, Jamie Wyeth and Maurice Predergast round out the significant sales on the dynamic list.
The sales charts for individual artists are also instructive despite the small sample of works. Let’s start with the strong demand for Norman Rockwell’s work across the price spectrum:
Thomas Moran, too, had strong sales but within expectations, for the most part:
Thomas Hart Benton has more of a mixed market but everything found a buyer:
N.C. Wyeth only had one work of five fail to confirm the market pricing of his work:
Saint-Gaudens did better overall helped along by the strong bidding on Victory:
Marsden Hartley’s sales were mostly compromises though the success of Bonhams lead lot surely pushed his aggregate sales into a solid performance against the overall estimates:
Maxfield Parrish’s work was relatively balanced with out-performance offset by a work bought in and two works well in the estimate range only slightly marred by lower value works that were let go for less than estimated:
Milton Avery had more mixed sales with half his works making a price within estimates and the other half failing to sell or selling below estimates: