This analysis of the George Condo’s auction sales results—made possible with data from Pi-Ex and Live Auction Art—is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscribers get the first month free on monthly subscriptions. Feel free to cancel at any time before the month is up. Sign up for AMMpro here.
George Condo’s market is having a hell of a year. The March sales of Contemporary art were very strong for the artist following on an even stronger showing in New York last November. But no one who follows Condo’s market was anticipating this month’s sale in London when an early work from 1985, Funny Landscape, (above) was on offer for £20-30k.
The painting is not immediately recognizable as a work by the artist. That didn’t dissuade bidders from descending upon the work. When the mid-season auction was over, the lot had sold for nearly four times the high estimate to make £112,500 with fees.
In and of itself, the sale is interesting but neither earth shattering nor authoritatively directional. A number of art market professionals have been casually watching Condo sales over the last year. They’ve noticed the market action and are curious to plumb its depth. This is how an artist’s market works with intermediaries sounding the depths of buyers’ demand and sellers’ interest—trying to determine whether to acquire, bring a work to market or get their clients more fully invested in the artist— through the repeated soundings of sales.
Since November, when a record was set for the artist during a day sale with bidding by prominent market makers, the casual interest in the Condo market has turned serious but cautious. The art market is phenomenological—meaning we never see the forces that drive the market explicitly but only trace the effects of that demand through the phenomena of sales events—always leaving a bit of doubt about whether the visible demand is real or orchestrated in some way.
With that in mind, we’re going to go through some detailed numbers to help describe the shape and trajectory of Condo’s rapidly changing market. So far in 2018, the sales volume for the artist has outpaced consistent sales of the two previous years. Each of those years was twice the level of the previous nine years.
A quick look at the sales history of last week’s Funny Landscape might be a good place to start. The 1985 work was auctioned for $22,000 in 1992 when Condo was anything but a market name. Fifteen years later, the painter’s reputation had made significant progress and the early work was sold at the peak of the Contemporary market enthusiasm for nearly twice the previous price or $43,000. When an art work doubles in value over 15 years, it isn’t really showing dramatic growth so much as growth in and of itself. The price rise signaled Condo persistence as an artist and the solidity of his reputation. He had yet to break through in a meaningful way on the market.
The ’07 purchase may have been a speculative play because the owner consigned the work again in 2012 when the Contemporary art market had finally shown that it was in the midst of a durable recovery. The 2011 auctions were populated with a number of works bought in 2007 where the consignors were happy to get their original money back after a nerve-wracking four years in the financial markets.
In 2012, Condo’s market, especially his market for quite an early work, had still not recovered and Funny Landscape was bought in against an estimate range of £20-30k. That low estimate was already a significant walk back from the purchase price but the seller would have to wait another six years before offering it again at the very same estimate in an off-season sale.
From the estimate range, we can assume the seller did not expect to make five times the low estimate. Though it would be interesting to know whether the decision to sell was based upon metrics like these assembled by Pi-eX. (Please note: the Pi-eX data reflects hammer prices and is based upon the main sales cycles in NY and London but does not include off-season sales):
This first chart shows the total hammer price volume for the Condo market at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips Day and Evening sales during the main market cycles in London and New York. But the total sales volume including the mid-season sales in London and New York add a substantial amount of volume that we address below.
AMMpro has previously looked at the performance of the Condo lots in the Ames collection during the Autumn sales of 2016. You can see from the chart above that Condo auction sales hammer volumes in the main auction cycles doubled in 2016 and matched that level again in 2017.
Approximately 40% of 2017’s total came from the sale of a single lot—a record $4m or three times the high estimate—during Sotheby’s Contemporary day sale in New York in November.
That price was notable for a number of reasons. First, it was twice the previous record for Condo. Second, the work was said to be on offer by members of a prominent family of art collectors—with many broad branches—who are not known as active buyers and sellers. They acquired the work six years before from the artist’s primary gallery. Third, the buyer was reputed to be the patriarch of a family of active market makers. Their presence in the Condo market has raised a number of questions among observers as to whether the price action is driven by a broad base of buyers or pressure from a few market makers.
To filter out the effects of those types of sales, we can look at the average prices against the average low and high estimates as Pi-eX provides below. Looking at the chart, it is quickly apparent that Condo’s market performance changed significantly in 2016. Where the average hammer prices lagged average low estimates for the years 2008 to 2015, the average hammer prices now have exceeded the average high estimates for the last two years and into London’s sales cycle. The last time Condo’s market performed like this it was 2007 and sales were at a much lower level.
That performance is also reflected in the aggregate auction numbers presented below. You see the same pattern with 2007 exceeding aggregates and then, again, in 2016 a similar pattern of sales exceeding aggregate estimates. The difference between the two charts is the drop in average estimates and average price in 2017. That average price was affected by the rise in number of auctioned lots in 2017. The number of lots by Condo auctioned peaked in 2012 and declined steadily until last year’s rise.
Pi-eX also created the analysis below which reflects the overperformance/underperformance of Condo’s market over 11 years. In 2016 and so far in 2018, all of the Condo lots offered found buyers. One can see from this chart that market success of 2007 brought a number of works to auction. Unfortunately, most of the works did not sell and the preponderance of value was in the unsold lots. Throughout subsequent years, sales above the low estimate were balanced by the value of works that either sold below expectations or were bought in until 2015 when the market for Condo stalled.
As mentioned above, the sales in 2016 flipped dramatically in the other direction and have remained strong above the low estimate. March’s sales in London were worth taking note of. One reason for the strong numbers so far in 2018 is the volume of work on offer in London during the main Contemporary sales cycle but also the addition of several Condo lots in New York’s mid-season sales timed to coincide with the Armory Show in early March. (Again, Pi-eX’s charts do not include the mid-season sales.)
The higher value sales were in London where 10 works were auctioned and sold for more than £5.8m.. The two top lots in London, Figures in Motion and Woman & Man both achieved prices that placed them at number 2 and 5 among Condo’s top prices. Both works had third-party guarantees.
Seven of the ten works on offer were sold for prices above the high estimates but the most aggressive bidding took place around lots in the lower price range on the border of six-figure estimates.
Since November of 2017, Condo works have achieved the top three prices for the artist, including Rainy Day Butler which sold for twice the high estimate (with premium added) to make $2.4m in New York during the Armory Show auctions in March. Total Condo volume in those sales was $4.9m with intense bidding seen across the range of estimates. The most aggressively bid upon lot had a $40k low estimate and sold for 7.5 times that amount based upon the hammer price. The top lot had a hammer ratio of 2.5 and the bottom lot had a ratio of 2.25. In between, there was a well-estimated work that sold at a compromise price below the $500k low suggesting buyers were not universally bullish on every work available in the marketplace.
The fact that three new top prices in the Condo market were achieved in a short span of 2018 following a significant rise in market expectations for the artist. How much of that price action is the result of buyers following the Mugrabi family into the Condo market or an effect of the family’s own buying itself is hard to tell. But it is worth noting that Condo’s recent shows have been very well-received and much of the bidding is concentrated around works made in the last decade.
Artists with a substantial body of work who are creating new work that excites interest are in an ideal position to grow in market prominence. That seems to be happening rapidly with George Condo’s market this year.