This analysis of the New York Impressionist and Modern art sales in November of 2017 is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The New York Impressionist and Modern art sales showed a level of interest and engagement that have been missing for a number of years. This was, no doubt, the product of having a number of estates on offer. The final sales numbers reflect a brief resurgence of the Impressionist and Modern market. For the first time in a number of years, the evening sales totals for the Imp-Mod category edged out the Contemporary art evening sales totals. Both the Contemporary sales and the Impressionist and Modern evening sales showed an impressive 91% sell-through rate reflecting the heavy sales management from all three auction houses.
Comparing Contemporary Evening sales to Imp-Mod Evening sales even further, we can see that the Imp-Mod sales had a higher hammer ratio than the Contemporary market. Hammer ratio reflects the percentage of the aggregate low estimate that the aggregate hammer prices achieved. For the Contemporary Evening sales, the hammer ratio was 1.00, meaning the hammer total was approximately the same as the aggregate low estimate. Since even in these highly managed sales 9% of the lots drop out, the Contemporary Evening sale hammer ratio of 1.00 shows that estimates in the Contemporary market have reached a very high level.
For the Impressionist and Modern market, the Evening sale hammer ratio is 1.17. That means the hammer prices were 17% above the aggregate low estimates. In the current, “toppy” markets, the Impressionist and Modern auctions seem to offer some sense of a relative opportunity for buyers. Though that may be pushing the meaning of these numbers a bit too far.
In addition, we can see from the aggregate numbers that the top ten lots in the Impressionist and Modern Evening sales accounted for nearly half the total sales value from all three houses and exceeds the Contemporary Evening sales percentage by nearly 5pts and almost $50m. That means the bulk of the Evening sales came down to a handful of paintings.
That should not distract us from one other comparative statistic. The average price for an Evening sale lot in the Impressionist and Modern market was $5.468m in November. For the Contemporary market, that figure was $4.427. That’s substantial difference when we’re so accustomed to thinking of the Contemporary art market as the locus value. The average price for a Contemporary Evening sale lot was 80% of the average price for an Imp-Mod lot. That suggests the best Impressionist and Modern works remain a better asset than Contemporary art. (Though one should be careful about drawing conclusions about asset values without knowing the cost basis.)
Switching to a list of the top 36 lots in the Evening sales, we can see that there are a few significant price points. Two works, the Van Gogh (above) and the Léger, were in a price band all of there own. Market gossip suggests the Léger was under priced at auction. Had it achieved the rumored private offer prices, the two top lots would have been further removed from the next price band by $45m. As it played out, the gap between the second most expensive lot and the third was almost equal to the value of the third most valuable lots, Picasso’s Femme accroupie that was sold to an Asian bidder after a surprise bidding battle.
Among the top ten lots, only three were bid above their estimate range. Another five were sold within estimates and two disappointed the consignors’ expectations. Since the top ten lots were so important to the sale, it is worth noting that the 10th lot was just below the $20m price level which seems to be a significant price point for this market.
Even fewer works were able to achieve a premium price over $10m. But paintings sold in that estimate range seem to have met or exceed the seller’s expectations. Below $10m, we see a greater proportion of works that were bid above the estimate range. And the concentration of those dynamic lots increases as the estimate values drop below $5m.
While we’re looking at the performance of lots in the evening sale, we should take note of those works that had the most aggressive bidding in relation to their estimates. The top dynamic lot of the evening sales was Phillips small Picasso brought to market with a $1m low estimate that achieved $9.3m after dogged bidding. The remainder of the list is a mix of bankable names and surprises. The Simpson Vuillards and Chagall’s Lovers are worth noting both for their out-performance and their positions on this list of 28 dynamic lots.
That brings us to the interesting question of market share. Again, the presence of several estates makes the mix of works on offer less a reflection of the market than of circumstances. Nonetheless, where the dollars go in terms of market share is always telling. You’ll note in reading this list of the top 24 artists from the entire sales cycle is that four of the artists on the list are essentially represented by a single work. The concentration of value in the art market remains heavily skewed toward the very top works from the most recognized, in market terms, names.
As ever, Picasso leads the list with nearly 17% market share. Monet follows as he often does but at a greatly reduced level of 10% of the market. Chagall’s 7% is worth noting. Magritte has a significant 4.5% and Vuillard a striking 3% helped by the record price for Misia et Valloton at Villeneuve. The surprises in market share terms is the Sonia Delaunay and Georges Braque on the positive side and the Giacometti having such a small share of sales volume.
Switching to the results from the day sales, we can see a real problem for the Impressionist and Modern market. Where the Contemporary market sees a ratio of Evening-to-Day sale volume at 3-to-1, the Imp-Mod market sees an 8-to-1 ratio. To put it another way, in the Contemporary market, the day sale is 24% of the sales volume for the season. In the Impressionist and Modern market, the day sale is less than half of that or 11% of the market.
That’s just too small to sustain the market. Worse still, the hammer ratio is .895 which means the aggregate hammer prices are below the aggregate low estimate even though the overall sell-through rate for the day sales is a sound 77%. That’s with 32.5% of the day sale lots selling above their high estimates. Unfortunately, that third of the sold lots isn’t enough to counter-balance 27% of the sold lots that had to settle for compromise prices. Those works are dragging down the over all value of the market which seems to be under pressure as it is.
The top day sale lots are by the same artists who capture the attention of Evening sale buyers, with a few exceptions like Rembrandt Bugatti, Maximillien Luce, Albert Aublet and Baltasar Lobo. This may reflect a narrowing of the market toward minor works by major artists instead of a meaningful traffic in the works of other artists. The chart (below) of the top day sale lots also shows a number of works that just could not meet the seller’s ambitions suggesting there are a number of collectors who believe their works, bought in better time for the category, are more valuable than the buyers do.
Finally, the list of the most dynamic day sale lots is dominated by works in the five figures that were bid up, sometimes to substantial six-figure sums. When the action in a market is so far down the value chain, it tells us the market feels picked over.