On Thursday alone, $635m of Contemporary art traded hands. That's more than half of the $1.15bn in Contemporary art sold during the week and nearly the same total as the first Rockefeller evening sale. In a fortnight that saw ~$2.7bn in public art transactions, that $635m might seem just a solid day's trading. But the shape of the sales total—nearly $400m at Christie's; $131m at Phillips and $107m at Sotheby's day sale—points to the culmination of a greater trend in the art market as a whole and the Contemporary market in particular.
We have arrived at the end of a long road of art market growth. Looking back, one can seem similarities between this sales season and the peak of the market in 2007 and early 2008. But there are important differences too. Where that market culminated in a sense of euphoria, this one is cautious. Prices are full. Buyers are wary. Yet the totals remain mind-bogglingly strong.
We will have much greater detail on the day sales for AMMpro subscribers when we analyze the auction results in the coming weeks. For now, let's focus on the Evening sales at Phillips and Christie's which made for one very long night broken into two parts.
The mood at Phillips and Christie's could not have been more different from each other and from the previous evening uptown at Sotheby's. Where the Sotheby's Evening sale surprised nearly everyone—like a spontaneous street party—both Christie's and Phillips played closer to form. Still finding their feet even as they advance their numbers, Phillips posted a strong total despite a few setbacks. A handful of big lots were either withdrawn, failed to generate bids or had consignors too stiff-necked to take advantage their best opportunities.
At Christie's, the art-trading juggernaut barreled through another big sale with Jussi Pylkkänen, surely the most skilled and comfortable auctioneer of this generation—or, perhaps, any other. Over the hump of Rockefeller sale where he seemed tense; and, after watching Adrien Meyer relieve him for the Impressionist and Modern Evening sale while maintaining the momentum; Pylkkänen teased, mugged and cracked jokes throughout the sale.
It started early on with the bidding for a François-Xavier Lalanne design work where Pylkkänen, not unlike a teacher separating rambunctious students in a class, admonished Loic Gouzer and Alex Rotter that they were standing too close together while bidding on the same lot. Rotter later came in for some skeptical questioning. Pylkkänen had turned toward Rotter in the middle of the bidding on the Lalanne to find the co-Head of Contemporary art turned half away from the proceedings, simultaneously chatting on a landline and scrolling through his phone.
"Alex, are you texting or are you bidding?" Pylkkänen asked patiently.
Rotter was indeed bidding. "We're trying to figure that out," he responded before offering $3.3m for the mid-sixties Lalanne bar.
"With a text at $3.3m," Pylkkänen announced as he turned toward the other telephone bidder. "It's a first."
Working every possible advantage, Pylkkänen proceeded to egg on the other phone bidder to "put paid to this texting."
It worked. Fifteen lots later in the sale, George Condo's Nude and Forms came up with eleven telephone bidders eager to participate. The initial flurry of bids outnumbered the biddable increments, driving the price through the estimate range of $2.2m to $2.8m. In the sale room din, specialist Andrew Massad called out $2.9m in a loud, clear voice that exceed the volume of the other bidders.
For a moment, the other specialists were silent either because the number had caused their clients to reflect or simply out of startlement. Once another bidder had responded with $3m, Pylkkänen went back to Massad for a bid but adding the conspiratorial question, "surprised yourself with a shout?"
The room chuckled together. But Pylkkänen sensed another opportunity. He nudged Massad along. "Shout three-two," he said. "Amuse us all. Go for it."
Pylkkänen got the bid but not the shout. "Dammit," he exclaimed, with mock chagrin. Eventually, Massad got left behind as Francis Outred and Xin Li Cohen bid the work to $5.2m. The $6.1m premium price advanced Condo's record—set only in November—by 50%.
Even then, Pylkkänen wasn't finished with Massad. At the end of the long 65 lot sale, with the room empty and the staff getting punchy, Pyllkänen began to do a buddy act with Massad. Imagine Pyllkänen as Dean Martin, the dry debonair straight man with impeccable comic timing, and Massad in the hapless Jerry Lewis role.
The bit worked. Pylkkänen got the laughs; Massad won each of the last lots.
For all of Pylkkänen's japes, and despite the good business done up and down the price spectrum, Christie's sale did the most to leave an impression of the market coming to grips with a significant change. Christie's $397m Evening sale total was only $5m more than Sotheby's even though the perception going into the sales was that Christie's was in a commanding position.
Judd Tully was able to get the apt quote from Andrew Fabricant on his way outside of the room:
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