This commentary on the London Impressionist & Modern sales from June 2017 is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions come with a free first month grace period. Subscribers are welcome to sign up for the service and cancel at any time before they are billed.
The London sales of Impressionist and Modern art nearly doubled from the previous year’s sales and made a record total of £313m (for Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined) or £10m more than in the previous high-water mark of the post-financial-crisis market.
That sales date is somewhat telling. 2010 saw the first solid indications that art—especially time-proven Impressionist and Modern art—was being used as a significant store of value for some of the world’s wealthiest persons.
Although the sales totals were very strong, the performance has shifted toward the top of the market echoing the totals from 2010 but not the recent years of 2012-15 when the day sales posted stronger numbers than this year or the year before.
Sotheby’s had its second strongest June Impressionist and Modern Evening sale of the post-financial-crisis era; however, the day sale was lower than any time in the last four years. Christie’s day sales were the lowest of the last eight years save 2016.
When looking at all of the lots sold by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams, we see a total of £315m achieved through the sale of 74% of the 595 lots offered.
Of the sold lots, 28% made prices above the estimate range; 42% sold within estimates; and, 30% were auctioned at prices below the low estimate.
Underscoring the weak performance was a hammer ratio of .96 which means the overall sale was below the aggregate low estimate measured by hammer prices. This would seem to indicate either estimates that are too dear or demand that is too weak to drive sales. Considering where we are in the cycle with just one soft year after several strong years of sales, the low hammer ratio is probably a product of both over ambitious estimates and uneven demand.
The top ten lots of the week accounted for more than two-thirds (68%) of the value of the entire week’s sales. That is a very skewed metric toward the top end of the market.
Finally, the average lot value combining all Impressionist and Modern lots sold during the June sales was more than half a million pounds (£522k,) which underscores, once again, that the art traded in these auctions is a very high-value asset.
Switching to the composition of the sales by artist, we can see some interesting effects of the skewed interest in a few very valuable lots. For example, Theo van Rysselberghe had a 2.7% market share based upon the sale of a single work for £8.48m. Vincent van Gogh had a 7.7% market share also based upon the sale of single out-performing work.
Wassily Kandinsky captured the largest market share in value terms at 18.7% on the strength of two very high value works. Pablo Picasso, normally the market leader, had the second most valuable lot of the week which also put his market in the second position at 15.5%.
With only five works on offer, Alberto Giacometti accounted for 6.6% of the total spend. Barbara Hepworth’s strong and broad sales were also notable for the .7% total achieved.
This list of the top 40 lots sold during the week indicates that the Impressionist and Modern market remains a skewed toward buyers who seem to have more market power than sellers. Lot competition was more prevalent in the lower third of the top 40 prices. Only the van Gogh, among the top 10 lots, was bid above the high estimate. Six of the top 20 lots were sold at compromise prices below the low estimate.
The good news is that there was a fairly broad range of artists represented among those top 40 lots.
Switching to a list of the most dynamic lots—the lots bid more aggressively beyond their high estimates on a relative basis—we can see that only six of the lots were sold at values above the £522k average lot value. This shows that bidders were focused on finding value at lower price points.
Though it is worth noting that two of the high value lots were for artists—Monet and Giacometti—with very mature markets. Look at the five Giacomettis sold in London below:
The top lot was sold just above the low estimate but with a very strong value. The next lower lot was bid well above the high estimate with a hammer ratio (hammer price/low estimate) was 2.57 suggesting that there is a great deal of competition among buyers for Giacometti works in the low- to mid-seven-figure range.
As mentioned above, the market for Barbara Hepworth sculptures continues to be very strong with all five lots on offer making prices above the high estimate. Four of the five works were grouped in the mid-six-figure range.
Another artist whose market has been very strong coming into these sales is Bernard Buffet. But his performance was weaker than one might have expected. The cause may simply be the increasing supply of work brought out by higher prices, more exhibitions and increasing awareness among owners.
The results also suggest a bias towards works of recognized value either by date, size or subject matter. It isn’t surprising that a painting depicting a clown would by the most dynamic lot. Curiously, the works that performed the best were ones with low estimates at £120k or above.
Another artist whose performance probably flies below the radar is Tsuguharu Foujita, the Japanese expatriate who lived and worked in France. Though most of the lots were low value, the bidding suggests a well of demand.
There was also some interesting activity in the market for Giorgio de Chirico’s minor works seen above.
Buyers continue to comb through the Henry Moore market with the majority of works being bid over the high estimate. Only one of those works approached a significant price.
Normally a major driver of the Impressionist and Modern market, there was only slight activity in the Picasso market in London. Three lots were the battleground among collectors but they were hardly the most valuable of the 24 lots offered.
Even the market leader, Kandinsky saw works sell at prices within the estimate range. Considering these works broke records, the indication is simply that estimates are out ahead of market demand.