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The failure of the top lot, Francis Bacon’s final canvas depicting a pope figure and including the figure of George Dyer, in the Frieze sale cycle seemed to capture all of the post-sale attention last week, especially from the popular press beguiled by the big numbers. Some reporters went as far as to suggest the painting’s inability to find a buyer was a signal of weakness in the art market with potentially dire consequences.
No mid-eight-figure lots would come to market again any time soon without the support of a massive guarantee, we were told too.
Not a few days later Christie’s announced a single lot estimated at $65m and a $120m collection, neither of which had guarantees, direct or third-party, attached.
Moreover, even before the results in London were known, there has been a movement over the last 2-3 years in the art market away from the biggest lots or, even, the quick-flipped young artists and toward a search for value in artists whose lasting careers confirm the quality of their work but for one reason or another their prices have not risen along with the rest of the market.
All of this sets up our discussion of the results in the London sales. Without the £60m wanted for the Bacon, the aggregate low estimate for London’s sales was 3% below the hammer total of £237m. The overall sell-through rate of around 80% reflected the 675 lots sold out of 846 lots offered. But here’s the thing: of the works that sold a full 39% achieved prices above the estimate range.
If the overall market is weak or threatened by the failure of a £60m lot, no one told those many bidders who chased works over the high estimate … and lost. Another 39% of the bidders paid somewhere within the estimates. So two-thirds of the lots were competitive or very competitive.
On the other side, there were only 142 lots that sold at compromise prices. That’s fewer than the 171 lots that failed to attract bids to the consignors reserve price. One way to look at the meaning of those numbers is that a greater number of consignors were unwilling to compromise on their sale prices despite the lack of interest. With the majority of works getting bids above the low estimate, it is easy to imagine an environment where a consignor remains steadfast and confident of his or her pricing.
A closer look at the average low estimate of the three classes of works—compromise, within estimate range and bid above estimates—shows that the works that did not meet the low estimate were on average the most valuable works offered. The average low estimate for the all of the works that sold below expectations was £423,000. Works sold within estimates had an average low estimate of £363,000. And, the works that were most aggressively bid upon, averaged the lowest low estimate of £147,000.
These numbers don’t mean that bidders were only chasing cheaper works. The Francis Bacon pope painting that had been rediscovered after many years sold well above the estimate range for £11.48m when the low estimate was £7m. So that’s not anyone’s idea of bargain lot. Nor can it easily be ascribed to the quality of the image which was not exquisite.
Indeed, among the body of Francis Bacon pope paintings, this one lot was probably seen as undervalued because of its size and quality but attractive because of its provenance and being fresh to the market. From the numbers mentioned above, we can deduce that the London market was most actively seeking value instead of trophies.
That might help explain why the one lot estimated at a level far above all the others had trouble finding bids. Few £60m paintings can be thought of as value purchases.
Switching to the chart of the top lots, we can see some of this bias toward value hunting play out. Among the lots sold at compromise prices, the biggest names were represented: Doig, Basquiat, Gormley, Bacon, Fontana, Grotjahn and Warhol. Some of those names also saw their work bid above the estimates—Basquiat, Bacon and Fontana—as well as a number of big name artists who might be considered to have reached full pricing like Giacometti, Richter, Twombly, Wool and Morandi. Finally, among the most competitive lots there were familiar names with still robust markets like Cecily Brown, Hurvin Anderson, Adrian Ghenie, Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin.
The list of the most dynamic lots is the most interesting for this sales cycle. There were see names ranging from Turner prize winner Grayson Perry whose work tops the list by selling for more than 10x the low estimate with the premium and a second work made nearly 5x the high estimate. A Henry Taylor work made more than 7x the low estimate. Two very cheap works by Shara Hughes were bid into the mid-five figure range. A Katharina Gosse work sold for 5x the low estimate and a healthy £300k. And a Wolfgang Tillmans went for more than 2.5x the high estimate.
Among the highest value works to receive a lot of attention from bidders was the small Giacometti Homme from Christie’s small works sale; Howard Hodgkin’s Goodbye to the Bay of Naples; two works by Hurvin Anderson; and an untitled Basquiat head on paper that sold for more than 3x the low estimate.
In terms of market share, Basquiat continued to show market leadership with 13.7% of the total sales volume. That doesn’t include the sole lot that was a collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat. We included those figures in Warhol’s total because, frankly, he used all the help he could get. Even so, Warhol ranked fifth in market share wth 4%, just behind Francis Bacon, 5.6%, who would have been the runaway winner of the market share battle had the £60m painting sold. Alas, it did not. Bacon had to settle behind Peter Doig who managed third place and 6.6% market share with only one work sold.
Lucio Fontana held his own spot at 8.9% with no one really near him above or below. Among his Italian peers, the next highest finisher was Alberto Burri with 3.6%, followed by Pistoletto and Boetti at 2.4% and 2% respectively. From there it was another long drop to Castellani who could not crack 1% market share.
The wide variety of artists with small market shares is another indication of where the market is these days. The attention goes to the big lots but the buyers are concentrating on a broader range of names and competing over more and cheaper works.