One of the strange things about the coverage of the art market is the way that biggest outlets fixate on the smallest number of lots. That is, there’s an obsession with the very top of the market. Instead of treating those trophies as outliers, the reporting revolves around the works with the fewest potential bidders and the greatest likelihood for uneven and unpredictable behavior.
Such was the case in New York in May when the record sale of a Basquiat head eclipsed a sales series that was more measured and focused on lots further down the price scale. So too was the response to the failure of the un-guaranteed Francis Bacon painting that could not find a bidder at the consignor’s price.
Most market participants recognized the work as an outlier event. The most urgent buying in Bacon took place years ago. Much of what has and does come to market now is not among the most compelling works he created. Christie’s work was more notable for various attributes within the painting—the last image of a pope and George Dyer’s figure just before his death—than it was noted for its composition or position within Bacon’s body of work. Under most circumstances, it would be hard for a work like that to establish a new record for a single canvas by the painter. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.
And yet here is the Wall Street Journal speculating that the sale might spook the market:
Its failure could rattle collectors who look to these mid-season sales in London to set the tone for next month’s higher-stakes auctions in New York. […] It remains to be seen whether these misfires were flukes—or a hint that big-league art does better in New York, where a painting in May sold for $110 million. If New York’s coming sales prove similarly choppy, collectors could start bracing for a market downturn.
This conclusion is kind of funny when you remember that the last two years of art market reporting have been a constant complaint that the overall market is down from the salad days of 2014 and 2015. Because the art market is so dependent upon supply, we should be very wary of conflating declining market volume with a so-called downturn. To phrase it differently, most art owners and buyers are more concerned with the price level than the volume of transactions. Any hand-wringing about the Bacon market’s health based upon the big painting’s failure would have to be balance by the strong performance of the re-discovered pope painting (not a strong image itself) that made more than expected at £11.5m. At the very least, these two data points cancel each other out.
In passing, the Journal even had to admit that the broader market hardly seems shaky in its current retracted position:
Until now, global demand for blue-chip art had been building since the spring; even without the Bacon, the overall series topped $342 million.
If we’re being honest, the story of these sales seems to be the unexpected performance of certain works in the context of a broader market, especially for Italian and Zero-group abstract art, that has reached a stable price level. We will try to discuss the ramifications of this new price level in another post. Here, let’s just recognize that estimates are beginning to act as a dis-incentive to bidding which may not actually hurt the overall market but does put public sales at a disadvantage.
Colin Gleadell tried to illustrate this with some re-sale figures from Phillips’s sale:
Ai Weiwei’s Map of China (2008) was bought at Christie’s in May 2016 for a double-estimate $2.5 million. But on Friday, it sold below estimate, for just £650,000 ($789,000). Another Ai sculpture, Coca-Cola (2012), was unsold at Phillips in May 2015 with a guarantee and a $400,000 estimate. Yesterday, it returned to the podium as property of Phillips (presumably unpaid for) and sold for £240,000 ($297,000).
Contradicting the perception that blue-chip contemporary work increases in value, unguaranteed works that had recently been on the market tended to register no gain. Andy Warhol’s Knives (1982) was bought at Phillips in New York for $3.4 million in 2011; on Friday, it sold for £2.6 million ($3.5 million). A Richard Prince photo-collage joke painting bought in London nearly six years ago for £481,250 hammered down for £460,000 ($601,000) before the buyer’s premium was added.
That doesn’t mean the market is down overall. As Gleadell illustrates, there remain strong pockets of market momentum based upon the career cycles of certain artists like Hurvin Anderson, Cecily Brown and even the post-retrospective market development for Frank Auerbach:
The rush for paintings by Turner Prize nominee Hurvin Anderson continued with the bidding around his large 2008 painting, Country Club, Chicken Wire. It had been bought from Thomas Dane when prices were around £25,000, but now sold for £2.6 million ($3.5 million). Estimated at £700,000, it was bought by Kadee Robbins of the Michael Werner gallery in New York, which represents the artist there. I suspect the ultimate purchaser was young Greek shipping heir Nicholas Goulandris, who was sitting next to Robbins, and left shortly afterwards.
dealer Danny Katz won a tussle for Frank Auerbach’s idiosyncratic homage After Rubens ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1993), for £3.7 million.
The winners of the afternoon were selling Cecily Brown’s Park (2004), which was bought in the same room for £421,250 ($550,423) in 2011. On Friday, the work sold for £849,000 ($1.11 million) to an Asian phone bidder against bidding from San Francisco dealer John Berggruen. Georg Baselitz’s Dreimal (1989), which was bought at Christie’s New York in 2014 for $185,000, returned £261,000 ($344,520).
We shouldn’t leave the subject of Christie’s sale without recognizing the reporting of Nate Freeman on Christie’s lead Basquiat lot, Red Skull, which sold for £16.5m. The sale is reminder that prices in the art market are always and ever a matter of timing:
From Basquiat’s onetime New York dealer Annina Nosei it went to a private collection in the Netherlands, then Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris, followed by private collections in Zurich and the United Kingdom, before ending up with the gallery Haunch of Venison, which was acquired by Christie’s in 2007. Haunch brought Red Skull to the TEFAF fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 2008, with a price of $8 million, according to reporting by the Financial Times at the time. But while hanging at that tony fair, it fell off the wall. […] The work was back on view the next day, but it did not sell. In 2009, Christie’s slotted the work, fully restored, into its June sale in London, and the catalogue entry for the lot was studded with a triangle symbol, meaning that it was partially or fully owned by Christie’s. This was a nadir for the art market in the depths of the recession, and Red Skull carried an estimate of £1.5 million to £2 million. […] When the sale happened, however, the work was marked as withdrawn. Between the catalogue printing and the sale, sources told ARTnews, Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain found a buyer for it: collector/dealer Asher Edelman. […] He got it, he said, in the range of the mid-to-high estimate of £2 million. (Though Edelman declined to identify the client for whom he bought the painting, sources told ARTnews that the client in the 2009 deal was Mark Laracy, a well-known collector of American folk art and furniture.)