Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale in London came in under expectations last night with £87.5m in sales where both top lots, a Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1932 and Giacometti’s cat previously owned by the Brody family in Los Angeles, sold for prices that fit with the tone of recent sales in the category.
The sale was down about a third over the previous year’s event with the very top lots accounting for much of the shrinkage, although in this year’s outing there was a good £20m in lost sales volume due to buyers just not showing up.
The Impressionist and Modern market remains both selective and top-heavy but last night’s sale also seemed to fit into some recent themes where the very top works failed to spark interest. As with the New York cycle of sales, bidders focused on particular works that were not necessarily the most highly valued.
The Picasso sold for £27m ($36m) which is a price in line with recent sales of similar works from the same year like the smaller but more striking Le Repos which Sotheby’s sold for a similar price in May. Although Phillips generated a much higher price ~$57m for another 1932 work just a few months before in London, it is not an uncommon pattern to see very strong prices followed by a declension as successive sales satisfy existing demand rather than generating new buyer interest.
The Giacometti offers another market through line having been previously sold for 20% more eight years ago than the price achieved at Sotheby’s. According to artnet’s Colin Gleadell who was observing in the room, the work was bought by a representative of Hauser + Wirth who was either attending the sale for a client or buying for the global gallery’s stock. Indeed, from the outside, the Giacometti looks like it would have sold better privately—and may still.
The more relevant point about the Impressionist and Modern market that the Giacometti sale makes is that the global macroeconomic environment in the 2010 to 2015 period that favored these types of works as stores of value is now over. We’re beginning to see a different climate both macro-economically and in terms of global taste.
Chinese buyers, if Patti Wong’s bidding is a reliable indicator, picked up a high-quality Pissarro that seemed to generate only moderate interest. The work came from a collection of four paintings that Sotheby’s was promoting. Two of the other works were bought in and will probably be the responsibility of Sotheby’s strong private sales group now.
The private sales domain shadows these auctions in some meaningful but hard to discern way. Art Basel ended on Sunday. Though there did not seem to be a great many Impressionist and Modern works capturing attention or sales at the fair, there did seem to be a concerted effort among the top galleries to communicate strong but unverifiable sales.
If true, we may be entering a phase of private market strength. If not, the art market may simply be groaning under the weight of its own success over the last decade.