This commentary on the London Contemporary 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.
Christie’s decision not to hold a Contemporary art cycle in London during the first few days of Summer somewhat changes the composition of the sales just by the absence of such a large player in the art market and, especially, in the Contemporary market. Even with this proviso, the sales were characterized by the absence of a dominating story. There was no outsized sale, no dominant artist, no trend in pricing or advances.
The combined sales at Sotheby’s, Phillips and Bonhams totaled £114m with 392 lots sold against 470 lots offered (another 19 lots were withdrawn before the sales which may be its own story) for a strong sell-through rate of 83%. Of the sold lots, nearly 37% made prices above the estimates; 40.5% sold within the estimate range; and, 22.7% sold at compromise prices below the low estimate.
What do those numbers suggest? Although the London sales had few very high value lots—the highest price for the week was less than $9m—the bidding and buying was healthy, active and somewhat aggressive. This lends further credence to the evidence of the last few years in the art market that buyers have shifted toward lower price points looking for either undervalued historical masters or interesting examples of established artists’ work that has been overlooked the market.
Before we move on to a discussion of some of that evidence, let’s run through the sales stats briefly. Even though a plurality of the lots were bid over estimates, the overall sales stats showed only a 1.15 hammer ratio or the relationship between the aggregate low estimate of £82.5m and the hammer total of £94.9m.
The top ten lots accounted for 34.7% of the total sale of Contemporary art that week weighing in at £39.6m. And the average price of a Contemporary art lot bought in London this Summer was £242k. That number should serve as a constant reminder of the substantial value of these assets.
The top three lots of the week somewhat capture this story. The most valuable painting sold was a Basquiat work (seen in the image above) from 1983 that made a price toward the high end of the estimate which may not be a surprise in this period great expectations around the Basquiat market. This solid work was not a major piece, though. Nor was the Warhol self portrait that hammered 10% above the low estimate for a price just below the Basquiat.
Neither of these sales would be remarkable if the next lot had not sold for twice the high estimate but £2m below the Basquiat. That work was a one of the 100+ collaborations between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Not previously sought after, two of these works from the Tommy Hilfiger collection were surprise standouts at Sotheby’s sale.
There’s more to say about when we look at market share below. Before we do, let’s consult the chart of the top works by premium price. Here you can see no dominant artist, a mix of historical and living artists and a fairly even distribution of prices within, above and below the estimate ranges. These suggest a market that is neither over-heating nor hitting a wall of frustration.
When we switch to the lots with the most aggressive bidding (here defined as the highest hammer ratio of hammer price over low estimate) the story of no dominant artist stays the same but the bulk of the names is very different. Bidders chased a very different set of artists from the ones at the top of the premium price chart. This suggests, again, that the market is in search of undervalued works.
Going back to artist market share, the Contemporary art market has been driven over the last decade an a half by the Warhol market, first, and then, recently, the market for works by Gerhard Richter. Since demand for both artists has plateaued or even cooled slightly, other artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lucio Fontana have also taken their turns at market leadership.
In June and July, there was no story of market leadership. Mark Grotjahn, Richard Prince, Bridget Riley, Albert Oehlen, Peter Doig, Keith Haring and Mark Bradford were all big contributors to the sales totals but each on only a single or handful of works. Louise Bourgeois made an appearance on the list of top artists by market share as did Damien Hirst, Tom Wesselmann, Josef Albers and Anselm Kiefer. Not unfamiliar names like Christopher Wool, Jean Dubuffet, Sigmar Polke and Michelangelo Pistoletto were there too without stand out works. Wolfgang Tillmans scored high after so much interest was generated by his recent shows.
The most curious aspect of the market share chart is how to account for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol’s collaborations which factored into these sales with a meaningful 6% just for the collaborative works. Warhol was 7.2% near the top of the chart in his customary position and Basquiat alone was 6.4%.
If we add the collaborations to Warhol’s total, his market share of 13.25% trounces Gerhard Richter’s 8.1%. If we add the collaborations to Basquiat’s market share, he too weighs in well above Richter at 12.4%.
This was hardly a sales cycle to measure Richter’s market by. As you can see from this chart where we ranked the Richter lots by low estimate in descending order. The higher value works were fighting estimates that buyers considered too dear. The bulk of the lower value works had strong bidding and achieved healthy prices. Only one of the Richters failed to find a buyer.
Seen from the same angle, Warhol’s market too shows a bias toward the very low end. All the Warhols presented in London found buyers but at prices that were fairly predictable. It was only for the cheapest of Warhol lots that serious competition emerged.
Damien Hirst’s market saw somewhat of a different shape. The top end and the bottom were mis-priced. But the works from solid categories of his output with estimates near the average for the entire sales cycle were bid on with gusto. This chart of the seven Hirsts sold in London also suggests a strong price point for Hirst just under $1m.
Finally, the market performance for a small number of Louise Bourgeois’s works is worth noting, especially the strong performance for the day sale lot, My Secret Life, a set of watercolors once owned by Claude Berri that doubled the high estimate.