This look at the last 12 years of Sotheby’s June Contemporary Evening sale performance 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.
Sotheby’s has been rewarded for sticking with selling Contemporary art in London in June. There was a great deal of talk after Art Basel of auction fatigue. But little evidence of it in the sales results. Our friends at Pi-eX put together this chart of last 12 years of Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale results in London. Judging from the chart (below,) Sotheby’s had the biggest year-over-year leap in results this year.
The immediate inference to be drawn from viewing this chart is that these sales have a pattern of collapsing and rebuilding over a series of years. The 2009 collapse was caused by the global financial crisis. Contemporary art was considered the weakest category in terms of value preservation. But that proved not to be the case as the overall art market rebounded in 2010 and then the Contemporary art market took over market leadership in 2012-14.
At this point, the conventional wisdom is that the building political uncertainty surrounding the US presidential elections and Brexit caused the retrenchment in 2016. That may be true. There might be other internal dynamics to the art market—namely, the transition from a ‘masterpiece’ market of high value works to a diverse market of sales at lower price points—that explain the retrenchment.
Whatever the cause, 2016 was a significant retrenchment in the London Contemporary market. Sotheby’s was able to make progress in the sales in 2017. This week’s leap in results was fairly unexpected.
These next two charts of the aggregate estimate range and performance (above) and average estimate range and performance (below) offer more clues to what’s been happening. For much of the period, especially the slow rise from 2009 to 2013, the sales totals failed to meet the low estimate level. In 2013, Sotheby’s had a strong sale that landed at the high end of the estimate range. (Remember that these charts measure hammer prices only.)
The sale in 2015 was hampered by several significant failed lots that constituted approximately £50m in low estimate value. The 2015 sale may have been a harbinger of the overall contraction in the 2016 art market. Sotheby’s got the message early and assembled a much more conservative sale. From 2016 to this week, Sotheby’s has been able to hit totals that rested squarely within the estimate range on both an aggregate and an absolute basis.
Such well-managed sales raise interesting questions about how Sotheby’s has been able to post such radically different results. The obvious question to many would be to assume that guarantees were taking the volatility out of the sales. And it is certainly true that this week’s sales had the largest component of value that was guaranteed either directly or by third parties. The final chart shows, in red, the value of the sale that was guaranteed. This week’s sales were unprecedented.
But there is no consistent pattern correlating the sales totals coming in within estimates and the proportion of the sale total that was guaranteed. There were substantial guarantees in 2012 and 2014 but only 2014 showed a solid sale within the estimate range. In 2016, Sotheby’s met expectations for sellers (or exceeded them) far better with only a small guarantee value.
The difference would appear to be the presence of Amy Cappellazzo and Adam Chinn at the auction house. The correlation may not be causation; but, so far—and within the scope of these particular sales—the Art Agency, Partners teammates have been present for an unbroken string of ever-improving and more stable Contemporary art evening sales.