This analysis of the November 2018 Contemporary sales in New York is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The Contemporary art market may feel pricey and pushed by guarantees to the point where the sales are often anti-climactic. By the numbers, Contemporary art is striking in its strength, breadth and depth. Yes, the top lot of the week dominated with its will-it-won’t-it tension over the sale price. In the end, the Hockney painting sold for the low estimate the consignor was demanding which demonstrates the amount of energy that has gone into this market achieving its ambitions. Nonetheless, the broader numbers were a step forward for the market. In Contemporary art, nearly $1bn in transaction volume took place at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. That was up 35% from last November’s sales cycle. Much of the increase came from the Ebsworth collection so top heavy in works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, but the presence of the Hockney and Mary Tyler Moore’s Richard Diebenkorn painting that made a near-record were important contributors to the soaring totals.
There were significant sales for a number of classic artists like Alexander Calder and Gerhard Richter at strong prices. For the first time in some time, the day sales found a limit to their momentum. With $218m in sales during the auctions held between evening events, down from $233m the previous year, the day sales were hardly damaged or facing serious problems. The blip in sales volume, sell-through rates and average prices during the day sales could easily be a seasonal anomaly or the product of the mix of works on offer.
The only directional information the day sale totals provide is a sense that the middle market’s upward momentum has some limit. In the longer run, that may be a much healthier market development.
The most dynamic lot on offer last month was the Philip Guston drawing, Window, (above) sold from the Anderson collection of works on paper that did not do as well as many (us included) expected. Individual high quality works like the Guston drawing were bid up. But the collection itself did not perform to the level of the best works perhaps because they were distributed through different sales like the Contemporary Evening sale rather than sold together as a group either in a single-owner sale or during the day sales.
Turning back to the Evening sales, our numbers combine the Contemporary lots from the Ebsworth collection with the Contemporary works in the three houses’ sales. The combined total for the evening sales is $994,784,300. There were four more lots in the evening sales to make 170 lots offered with 151 sold. That’s an 88% sell-through rate, slightly lower than last year’s 91%. A plurality of the sold lots fell within estimates. Just under a third sold above estimates and a slightly larger number sold below estimates. At the top of the market, there are still works priced to attract competition like the Guston or Calder’s 21 Feuilles Blanches or Tom Otterness’s Large Bear from the Ebsworth collection that sold for a $1.5m or three times the median estimate.
The top ten lots in the Evening sales accounted for nearly 40% of the value of those sales which down 3% from the year before. That seems surprising considering how top heavy these sales were with three works selling between $50 and $100m. Part of the answer to that riddle lies in the rise in average price from $4.4m last year to $5,828,142 this year. That’s a 31% rise in average price value. Taking the slight drop in the percentage of value accounted for by the top ten works into account, that suggests a larger number of works selling in the band above $5m. Indeed, the top 40 lots were all above the average price level.A brief look at the top lots from the Evening sales bolsters some of our points above. Only six works among these top lots were bid over the estimate range. Many sold within estimates; many sold at compromise prices. The overall picture is of a market that is well-priced or perhaps slightly aggressively priced. The mix of artist’s names is also a sign of the market’s stability. Hans Hoffmann makes a surprise appearance in the top works at $8.6m but no market watcher would have been taken by surprise by that development.
The list of most dynamic lots from the Evening sales is a little more interesting. KAWS has several appearances on the list, including taking the second spot for Chum (KCB7) which sold for $2.4m. Several younger artists or artists who have not previously been as well recognized like Dana Schuta, Henry Taylor, Leon Polk Smith and Christina Quarles fill out the top of the dynamic lots at a wide range of price points.
The market share numbers for November are the biggest revelation. These may be a strong sign that the Contemporary market has moved past its reliance on a few artists like Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter to provide stability. David Hockney barely factored into Contemporary art auctions four years ago. Since the run up to his traveling retrospective and since, Hockney’s later work has achieved prices scarcely imaginable a decade or less ago. Even without the extraordinary and unlikely to be replicated $90m price for Hockney’s masterwork, the $34m in sales would have placed David Hockney among the top artists by market share this last season.
The same is true of Willem de Kooning. The nearly $70m de Kooning woman painting could also be removed and still qualify de Kooning for a top spot in the market share table. Having said that, the skewed values of some art works was able to qualify both Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock for inclusion at the top of the market share table on the strength of a single sale. Basquiat, Calder, Richter, Warhol and Wool, are all market stalwarts and were well represented in the sales. Richard Diebenkorn is finally getting a market presence in sync with his reputation as a painter. Joan Mitchell is in a strong position even if her market advancement failed this season. Arshile Gorky, Frank Stella and Richard Prince had strong showings too.
The day sales have been particularly important for the Contemporary art market over the last few years. Under the cover of a sometimes over-heated masterpiece market, a strong taste for quality works by established artists with historical pedigrees developed in the Contemporary market. The day sales were where these works found their most visible manifestation. The $218m in sales this November was down from $233m last year. The expectations leading into sales were a bit higher this November with an aggregate low estimate of $160m for the works on offer which compares with last year’s $155m.
Last November, the sales outperformed the estimates at a higher rate than this year. So the 1.22 hammer ratio in 2017 was not matched in 2018 where the hammer ratio was 1.11. The number of lots on offer was down slightly; the number of lots sold was down; and the sell-through rate was down. In 2017, there were 70 more works of art sold at prices above the estimates than this year. That seems to be the difference between the two years.
The top of the day sale chart is much more the result of competitive bidding. Here the majority of lots were bid over the estimates. The day sales may be slightly diminished but they are still where the bulk of the action lives in the Contemporary art market. The mix of artists is similar to the Evening sale list—Hockney, Twombly, Mitchell, Calder, etc.—but there’s also a host of names not represented in the evening sales like Ed Ruscha, David Wojnarowicz, El Anatsui and even Brice Marden.