This analysis of the September 2018 Mid-season Contemporary in New York is available to AMMpro subscribers. Recent reports will be available to all viewers initially before going behind the paywall. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The Mid-season Contemporary art sales in New York were smaller this year than either in the Spring or last Fall. Whether that is a harbinger of a slow down in the middle market which has heretofore been a powerful driver of sales activity or simply a reflection of the shift in the broader market toward these types of works, remains to be seen. The marquee sales in November and May have a gravitational pull for consignors. Both day and evening sales have become more accessible to artists and works that might have previously starred in these types of shoulder season sales.
Take, for example, the two top lots among the three houses. One was a Frank Stella geometric painting that sold for $2.66m, toward the low end of the $2-3m estimate. The other was a study for the Kerry James Marshall work that sold for a record $21.1m earlier in the year. In 2017, those top lots were quite different.
The top lot of the 2017 sales cycle was a Milton Avery work that made $3.66m above the $3m high estimate calling attention to Avery’s work which would also perform exceptionally well during the Rockefeller estate sales. The second lot of that cycle was a Joan Mitchell work that sold for $3.3m over a $2m high estimate. We’ve all seen the momentum that continues to drive through the upper reaches of the Mitchell market still.
There are more clues about the meaning of these sales results deeper in the data. But let’s first look at some of the top line figures and compare them to a year ago.
***We’ve had comments from readers about the drop in sales. It is important to remember that there are two ways to look at sales cycles. One is to include all similar works sold during the same period to record the market demand and selectivity. That’s what we did with our original report which included single-owner sales at each of the houses. That’s what accounts for the drop in sales from 2017 to 2018. Sotheby’s had two single-owner sales in the period and Phillips had another where KAWS first demonstrated some of his market momentum that continues today.
The second way is to look at like-for-like sales comparisons. Here it is worth reviewing how the mid-season contemporary sales performed year-over-year with the single-owner sales excluded. Why? Because you can see an important growth trend in the middle market persisting. According to numbers shared with us by Sotheby’s, the September sales looked like this:
2018 Premium Total: $57.3m 2017 Premium Total: $46.6m
2018 Average Price: $72.2k 2017 Average Price: $51.5k
Hammer Ratio: 1.03 . Hammer Ratio: 1.11
The rise in premium total was 23% year over year. But the average price rose a whopping 40%. The fall in the hammer ration (the hammer price divided by the low estimate) shows that bidding stayed closer to the estimate range. A slightly higher rate of works getting bought in, 24% versus 21% the year before suggests that estimates have finally caught up with the market. The shoulder season sales are no longer bargain bins where collectors, dealers and advisors go to find overlooked works of value.
These numbers are the culmination of a trend that can be seen across the four sales offered in the last two years that saw a progression from the Spring of 2017 where the the premium total was $44.6m and the hammer ratio, 1.19; to Fall 2017’s $46.6m, 1.11; to Spring 2018 where the total was still higher at $53m with a 1.07 ratio; to Fall 2018’s $57.3m, with a minimal 1.03 ratio. It’s easy to see the way the estimates and hammer prices are converging as specialists get a better grip on the market. Curiously, the average prices bounce around the $50k range for three of the four sales cycles. But then the average price jumped this September.
We try to stay out of the horse race between the houses in these sales analyses. But to be fair to Sotheby’s who flagged this data, we can look at some differences between the houses. Sotheby’s consistently has the higher average prices in the $70k range in 2017 and the low $100k range this year. But Christie’s saw the biggest jump in average prices from consistent $50k range to $76k this past season. Christie’s also consistently has a hammer ratio below 1 showing their mid-season estimates are aggressive.
Switching back to our original analysis: In September 2018, the sales total for all three houses was $57.4m. That’s a big drop from 2017’s $74.6m mostly accounted for by the absence of single-owner sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips during the same period last year. The sell-through rate this year was 76.5% which was only slightly below the previous year’s 79.5%. In 2017, there were 1437 lots offered; last month, it was 841.
The top ten lots across all three houses accounted for almost the exact same portion of the sales total, coming in at 21% each year within a few decimal places.
One clue as to what is going on here lies in the average price for the sales cycle. Average prices rose from 2017 to 2018 as the number of sold lots fell. The average price in 2017 was $51,900; the average price this Fall was $68,275. When we look at the list of top 40 most dynamic lots, the lots that were bid aggressively above their estimates, there is a striking contrast year over year.
In 2017, that list was dominated by lots estimated three- and four-figure levels. Aggressive bidding was looking for overlooked works. In 2018, the list is populated by five- and six-figure works. That may mean there is less interest in combing through the bargain bins. Or it could simply mean that having gotten the directional information from the market last year, the auction houses are delivering better and better-estimated works to buyers this season.
The market share list is also instructive. In 2017, the top artists were by Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Wolfgang Tillmans and Yayoi Kusama. This year’s list includes a few artists with single or a few works that totaled in the seven figures like Kerry James Marshall, Frank Stella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Cecily Brown and Robert Indiana. But there were other artists who emerged from these sales with strong totals. Adriana Varejao’s work is appearing in prominent sales with momentum. Sam Francis and Sam Gilliam both posted strong totals. Gilliam’s eight works in these sales all sold. Each one save the one that sold within estimates, exceeded the estimate range significantly.
Kaws is the other artist whose market is on bender right now. Ten of his 12 lots on offer sold above the estimates with the other two suffering either a compromise sale below estimates or getting bought in. Kaws’s market may be robust but it does seem to have selectivity to it as well.
George Condo posted strong $2.5m in sales but that was significantly lower than the Spring. Few who are paying attention to the Contemporary art market would ignore the obvious fact that Condo’s work has moved to the main stage. These lower numbers compared to the similar sales earlier in the year may simply reflect the fact that Condo’s work is now going to be sold during the marquee sales next month. We’ll see.
Finally, to reiterate the comment from above, the list of dynamic lots that you can see below is quite different from the same list last year in both price level and the names that we see represented. A Beauford Delaney work made five times the high estimate with premium for an artist usually sold within the African-American category. Kehinde Wiley, Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold and Bob Thompson are some of the other African-American artists whose work performed quite well. Anne Truitt, Jenny Holzer and Louise Nevelson saw big pops for their works.