This analysis of the September Mid-Season sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in New York and London is available to AMMpro subscribers. The first month is free with every subscription. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before the first month is up.
September’s sales of Contemporary and 20th Century art held in New York and London, including Sotheby’s sale of the estate of playwright Edward Albee and Mario Testino’s collection, offer an interesting window into the middle market. Normally, these sales do not include high value, seven-figure works of art but this September—because of the Albee sale which had a Milton Avery, Marc Chagall and Jean Arp work each estimated above $1m and a Joan Mitchell in Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale—the market was able to absorb a handful quite easily.
Before we delve into the details of these auctions and what their results might reveal about specific artists’ markets, let’s take a moment to observe the curious results of the Albee sale. At the top end of the estimate range, Edward Albee’s provenance seemed to add little to the works on offer. Albee’s Milton Avery, Meditation, sold quite well slightly above the $3m high estimate. But his Chagall, Kandinsky and Arp works were all sold at disappointing prices in view of their estimates. Nonetheless, the Albee sale saw remarkable bidding for a range of works that produced impressive results.
John McLaughlin had three works among the Albee lots. All sold at prices that were multiples of the high estimate. The cheapest of the works had a $20k high estimate and a $43k premium price. Above that there was a 1960 work that nearly tripled the $90k high estimate to make $262k and a 1957 abstract that made $516k or more than four times the $120k high estimate. Lee Krasner, Kurt Schwitters, Medardo Rosso, Walt Kuhn, Jacques Lipschitz, Theodoros Stamos and Charles Green Shaw all saw sales that have provoked a great deal of conversation for their strong to exceptionally strong prices. As famous as Albee was, no one seems to believe the buyers were paying for the playwright’s provenance. There continues to be a hunt throughout the art market for under-valued works by over-looked or under-appreciated historical masters. The $3.3m paid for Joan Mitchell’s Parasol (above) over a $2m high estimate seems to be of a piece with that trend.
Taken together, these sales yielded $74.5m with a 79.5% sell-through rate on 1437 lots offered in both cities. The aggregate low estimate for the sales was $53.8m and the total hammer price was $60.2m. Unlike the marquee auctions in London or New York, the broader range of works and the paucity of big lots means the top ten lots only accounted for $16.3m or 21.8% of the sale total. The average price of a lot in these sales was just under $52k which means were getting some visibility into a sector of the market that usually trades privately among secondary dealers.
Of the 1143 lots that did well, a very healthy 42% of those lots were bid above the high estimates. As an indicator of market strength, that statistic is quite noteworthy. A further 31% of the lots were sold within the estimate range. That left only a quarter of the lots to be knocked down at compromise prices. Clearly a number of consignors were happy to take what was offered.
The aggressive bidding hinted at in those statistics can be seen more clearly in the top lots from the combined sales. With a cutoff point just above $300k, these lots are more in keeping with the value of day sale lots during the main market cycles. Yet here we see more dynamic bidding than was present a few weeks later at the Frieze auctions.
Some further lots to single out are Michael Borremans, Two which sold for three times the high estimate during the Testino Shake It Up sale in London (prices here are shown in dollars to make sales comparable.) Two different untitled small de Kooning works from the 1970s, one at Sotheby’s and the other at Christie’s, both performed exceptionally well. Sotheby’s work made $792,500 over a $300k high estimate; Christie’s made$348,500 over a $200k high estimate. And a Sam Gilliam, Rays sold for more than four times the $150k high estimate to make $684,500.
Because these sales have so many low value lots, the list of dynamic lots, or those that were bid furthest above the estimate range, is dominated by works in the four and five figures. Given these values, the list is worth viewing more for its curiosity value than as any sort of a directional indicator.
The random nature of the list of dynamic lots should not put us off looking for some market intelligence among the works by artists who trade at volume. A good example is Yayoi Kusama who saw all seven of the works on offer find buyers. The strongest bidding was for works at the lower end of the estimate range with some equalizing to prices well above the estimates for works assumed to be more valuable.
With the exception of one work, the appetite for Wolfgang Tillmans’ art remains strong and will continue through the Frieze sales. Here, in September, we see buyers hoovering up all the works at aggressive prices save for one low value work.
As mentioned above, the curious examples of two de Kooning works extended to some five-figure valued works on paper that also attracted bidders. Only one of the de Koonings on offer at this level failed to find a buyer.
Formerly, these sales would have a number of Alexander Calder gouaches included. Typically, these works sell at prices comfortably above estimates. This was the case again in September but those sales were overshadowed by a group of jewelry works that dominated the sales list. The various wearable Calders attracted the most attention from bidders even at the very bottom of the estimate range.
Another sculptor whose work seemed to be in universal demand is Louise Nevelson. Six of the eight lots by the artist were sold at prices above the high estimates. The sales took place up and down the estimate range suggesting strong demand for her work.
Some artists whose work had been much in demand and are often well represented in these sales are Victor Vasarely whose massive but uneven output has been in demand these last few years but this most recent crop of offerings didn’t excite. Nearly half of the works failed to find buyers. The remaining 60% were evenly split between bargains, expected prices (for two of the most ambitiously estimated works) and bidding battles.
The market for Tom Wesselmann’s work has been anticipating a upgrade for many years. The artist’s estate is finally represented by high-powered galleries in the US and Europe. There is some indication that sales momentum is building for this undervalued Pop artist. But there’s nothing to get too excited over. Two thirds of the works on offer made prices within estimates. Of the remaining works, one each sold well, as expected and failed to find a buyer.
Finally, no look at the Contemporary art market can ignore the results for Andy Warhol works. These are hardly the sales to measure the master’s market by but the sheer volume requires we pay attention. Sales were all over the compressed price spectrum with the sole six figure lot failing to find a buyer. That didn’t stop two works from getting bid into the six-figure range. But you can see from the smattering of sales and the concentration of green at the bottom of the chart, these buyers were strictly looking for souvenirs.