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The London Contemporary art auctions were up substantially—65% in total sales—from 2017 to 2018 despite Christie’s decision to remain on the sidelines as far as mounting an Evening sale. There was a 40% increase in the number of lots offered in 2018. And the average lot value increased 19% from 2017 to 2018.
How do we explain these increases against a market mood of auction fatigue and the overall decline of artists who previously were the engines of market growth? From the data we combed through from our friends at Live Auction Art, it begins to look like the transition in the Contemporary art market is now in full swing. For a number of years, the Contemporary art market was a masterpiece market like the Impressionist and Modern market. It recently became a broader market of a greater number of artists who may rise and fall in market share by the season but also now attract significant value.
Let’s get back to that point when we look at the market share figures. First, the sales stats are worth paying attention to in their own right, not relative to the previous year. The aggregate low estimate was £136m with a hammer total of £157m which gave the sale a 1.15 hammer ration. The same as the previous year.
Of the 650 lots offered, 86% found buyers, a slightly higher sell-through rate than the previous year. Of those 560 sold lots, 36% went for prices above the estimate range. That shows strong demand for Contemporary art. It’s also the same proportion that exceeded estimates last year.
The top ten lots represented £89m or nearly 48% of the sale’s overall value. That was a big jump from the previous year when the top ten only accounted for 35% of the sale value. The concentration at the top helps explain the rise in average lot value from 2017 even as sell-through rates and the percentage of lots sold over the estimates remained the same.
The Evening sale average lot value was £1.9m. Day sale lots averaged £43k. This one statistic shows the value gap. A few very valuable lots dominate these sales both in the top ten lots and among the rest of the Evening sale lots. The gulf between Evening sale value and day sale value remains quite large.
We can see this concentration of value in the market share numbers where the figures were often dependent upon only a very few examples of the artist’s work. The first thing to note above all other observations is that Andy Warhol’s work only accounted for 1.56% of the sale’s total value. Considering Warhol’s central role in the rise of Contemporary art over the last 20 years, this seems a signficant event. Just last year, Warhol took between 7% and 13% of the Contemporary art auction value depending upon whether you included the works he collaborated upon with Jean-Michel Basquiat. For his market share to fall so far in a single year, is sobering.
It is certainly true that the decline of the Warhol market has been long-recognized. But even a reduced market for Warhol ought to be a significant market, not one a fifth of the size.
Jena-Michel Basquiat’s spot at the top of the table was secured primarily through the sale of four high value lots in the London sales. One, the untitled work at the top of the post, was the subject of a surprise bidding battle. But all of the six lots sold made prices at or above the low estimate. And one of the cheapest lots had the greatest sale at twice the low estimate by hammer price.
Lucian Freud had nearly 12% market share based upon the sale of a single work, the most valuable of the season. David Hockney had the third-most valuable work and held the third position in market share, again primarily on the sale of that single work. Hockney was not on the market share list at all last year.
Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig and Yves Klein all follow Hockney on the market share list, mostly on the basis of a single high value lot.
If the market share list is a reflection of the list of top lots, it is worth looking at the performance of those lots against estimates. A third of the top lots were sold at compromise prices below the low estimate. Although that is not the sign of a robust market, it isn’t necessarily a sign of a weak market either, especially when the lots sold within the estimate range and above are of equal proportion. Noteworthy among the top lots is Sam Gilliam’s, Forth which sold for a record £910k. There was also a near-record for Sean Scully, an artist popular with Chinese buyers, and strong results for Elizabeth Peyton who has not appeared prominently at auction in some time.
Among the lots with the most dynamic bidding, the market continues to fight over lower value works in the five figure range. Cecily Brown’s The Skin of Our Teeth was one of the few six-figure lots with heat on it. The work eventually was bid up to being a significant seven-figure lot when it made a final price of £3m.