Live Auction Art published the market share figures for Contemporary art pictured above. You can see that Sotheby’s pulled off a strong set of sales to finish dead even with Christie’s in Contemporary art (though a few stray Rockefeller lots would have given Christie’s a negligible few points of market share. Phillips continues to gain its position in the market even if their market share remains far behind the big two.
The top of the Contemporary art market is still down. According to historical numbers gathered by our friends at Pi-eX, the Evening sale totals for Contemporary art for the Spring sales in New York were back below the level of 2013. Over the last six sales cycles, the totals shot above historical levels in 2014 and 2015 before pulling back to their lowest total in 2016 since the 2011 sales cycle. There was a brief rally in 2017 back to that 2013 level. Last week, we saw the numbers pull back slightly.
We’ll have a more detailed analysis of the composition of those sales—which on first reaction are quite positive for their depth of value and breadth of new names—when we publish our Contemporary market report next week. In the meantime, let’s look at what Pi-eX’s numbers can tell us.
The chart above shows the hammer price total for the three auction house’s evening sales events. The Contemporary market in New York continues find its level which remains an astonishing billion dollars in public transactions. Over the last three years, that level has returned to the range commensurate with the top of the previous market a decade ago.
Pi-eX aggregates estimates (excluding works with estimate upon request) then charts the sales totals (adding in the works estimated upon request with the black diamond) using hammer prices only. This year, the market underperformed on an estimate basis with the aggregate sales making just above the aggregate low estimate. This followed a fairly common pattern seen in 2011, 2015, and 2016.
Switching to average estimates and hammer price for lots that had estimates, we see again that the bidding is restrained. In 2012 the average hammer price for estimated lots peaked. Since then the number has declined steadily. Even in 2016 when the average estimates were revised downward, the hammer price sunk to meet the low estimate. Last year there was a recover within even lower estimated range. And this year the hammer price average remained the same as the estimate range rose slightly.
These are the Evening sale lots. So we’re not going to see the market out run these expectations after so many years of Contemporary art dominating the market. But do remember that this season saw a reversal. Impressionist and Modern art accounted for more dollars in New York this May than Contemporary art. Much of that is due to the Rockefeller sale but it remains a fact that more money was spent in the category many have left for dead. It wasn’t so long ago that commentators were wondering if the Impressionist and Modern market was slowly becoming like the Old Master market.
That brings us to Pi-eX’s exclusive metric balancing bought-in lots by value (red) and lots sold under the low estimate against the value of works that received competitive bidding (blue.) The period from 2016 to 2018 bears a resemblance to the 2009 to 2011 period where a balanced sale was followed by a bullish sales cycle with a preponderance of competitive lots and a small number of compromise lots. In the third year in both cycles, the sales volumes failed to advance and more lots were unable to find bids that met the seller’s demands.
The presence of guarantees, which were used far less in the 2009 and 2010 sales, may mitigate the similarities even more. Looking at the proportion of sales value that was guaranteed versus the amount sold without price supports, we can see that less of the sales value in 2018 was guaranteed than in 2017. Still, the majority of Evening sale value was covered by some sort of financial backstop.
The use of guarantees is way down from the volume of 2014 and 2015 even if the proportion is similar. There was a moment in the market two years ago where sellers were eschewing guarantees in favor of greater financial rewards. But seller confidence seems to have waned since then—and may continue to stay at these levels for some time.