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The New York Times’s art market columnist sounds worryingly fed up with the beat. As the rest of the press remarked upon the recent successful-but-not-overly dramatic round of sales in London, the Times’s report seems deeply conflicted. First, the globally-read column takes a passive view of the market: “The outstanding prices are dutifully reported by international news outlets and on social media, creating a general perception that contemporary art sales are on an unstoppable roll.”
Then a palpably frustrated tone emerges at the prospect of having to write 1300 words describing the fortnight of sales in London: “What else is there to say about this procession of anonymous seven- and eight-figure bids for bankable brands such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol?”
In response to his own question, the Times’s correspondent courageously stands up to the yeah-sayers: “Well, the first thing is that the high-profile contemporary auctions in London are only the glittery tip of the iceberg that is today’s art market. And that tip isn’t quite as glittery in London as it is in New York,[….]”
So if you were one of the sheeple who mistakenly thought a billion dollars in sales over two weeks in London mattered, know now that this is all just bush league art trading: “London, by contrast, has become the place to auction good quality “midmarket” contemporary works priced at $20 million to $30 million.”
Apparently the Times’s doesn’t get out of bed unless you’re selling something in the nine-figure range.
This attitude is what has created the mistaken notion that the art market has somehow been in a slump because there was significant pullback in global sales, particularly at the very top end of the market where sharp shifts in trading can have out-sized effects on overall market volume.
Underneath that seven-, eight-, and nine-figure level, the part of the art market that seems to bother the Times so, there is a thriving five- and six-figure art market. (Make no mistake, these prices don’t make any of this art less of an asset or less of a luxury item being bought for myriad reasons both socially valuable and entirely self-serving.) That market, the layer many would call the middle market, has just checked in from New York with a series of auctions. The results of those sales are very interesting. If you’ll bear with us, we would like to walk you through the details.
The first thing to know is the Armory auctions are up 17% in sales volume this year over last across an 11.5% rise in lots offered and lots sold. This caused the average price of a lot in the Armory Week sales to rise from $68,338 to $72,141 or 5.5%.
More than 82% of these lots sold for prices under $100,000.
Whatever is happening at the upper end of the market, the lower end of the viable sales market continues to attract bidders, buyers, and perhaps most important of all, sellers.
Sales volume, sold lots, and average price are all up. So is proportion of lots that sold above the estimate range. In 2017, slightly under 35% of the lots were bid over the high estimate. In 2018, that figure rose to nearly 37%. Another almost 33% sold within the estimate range. Combined, fully 70% of the lots met or exceeded seller’s expectations.
The chart above offers a visual representation of the demand level for the top 45 lots by price sold during Armory Week. Only seven of the works were gaveled down at compromise prices; just under half of the lots were bid above the high estimate.
Among the lots that saw the most aggressive bidding, there were few repeat names like Sam Gilliam and Alexander Calder. But, for the most part, the 45 lots that were bid upon the most aggressively showed a broad range of interest. This suggests the middle market is broadening as well as deepening.
That fact is illustrated in the final chart showing the market share (of total sales volume) by the top artists among the 735 sold lots. This is a smaller sample than we see during the major sales cycles but range of artist, sometimes based upon a single work, is broad and reasonably varied.
One point of reference, about which we’ll have a more detailed say in another post, is the expansion of the George Condo market. In 2017, 10 Condo works sold for a total of$546,875. Half of those works sold above the estimate range indicating some of the market demand building for Condo at the time. A year later, after some significant sales in the marquee auctions, Condo’s sales volume had risen to a level nine times higher on slightly fewer lots (8) but a greater proportion getting bid over estimates.
Calder sold $868k across 20 lots in 2017; in 2018, the dollar volume had more than doubled on 17 lots. By comparison, the numbers on Jean Dubuffet remained essentially flat year over year. Sam Francis saw a significant rise; Wayne Thiebaud was also flat.