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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.
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