This analysis of the 12 years of Evening sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips was made possible with data from our friends at Pi-eX. It is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscriptions begin with a free month for the curious. (Please note: these numbers do not include single-owner and curated sales that have punctuated the market at various times. The point of these charts is to show year-over-year changes and so the single-owner and curated sales are thought to interfere with a consistent comparison.)
This is the first of a series of posts on the auction market over the last 12 years. The chart above shows the number of lots sold in the Evening sales in New York and London. These numbers exclude special sales of either single-owner collections or curated sales. What we’re trying to provide here is a year-over-year look at the auction market as it appears in Evening sales in New York and London.
What the data shows is three distinct phases. The first is the peak of the last boom and the fall out of the financial crisis. The second is the asset reflation period from 2010 to 2015 when the art market presented surprising growth in the face of a broader global climate of uncertainty. The third phase we see in these charts is the last three years where total volume of lots sold has been consistently lower than the second phase.
Remember, because we are only looking at Evening sales in Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art in London and New York and excluding special sales, we’re not measuring the entire art market. All this chart shows is that the number of lots sold in New York and London in the Evening sales remains fairly consistent over these periods. The latest phase may simply reflect the recognition that works of art at the top of the market are so valuable these days. The number of lots sold may reflect the auction houses’ allocation of resources. But because these are sold lots we also have some sense of the demand.
We can see a fair bit more when we shift toward looking at the value numbers.
Dollar volume shows a very different story over the same period. The peak in sold lots might have taken place in 2007-2008 but the peak in dollar volume came in 2014 with three more years exceeding the peak year of 2007 including the last two years.
The unexplained mystery in this market is the sharp drop in sales value in 2016. There was a clearly a reset in 2016 with the lower volume of sold lots. But the increase in sales volume in 2017 and 2018 on a lower number of sold lots shows the concentration of value in a few lots at the top. The black bars in the chart above show the works that were offered without a published estimate. These “estimate on request” lots tend to be very high value works which only underscores the effect the highest value lots have on the overall market performance.
The chart of Evening sale auction performance by aggregate (below) add more detail to the story. We can see that on an estimate basis, the Evening sales have mostly performed toward the low end of the estimate range. This is partially a function of bought-in works balancing works that sell above the estimate range. In the chart below you can see the 2007, 2014 and 2017 had the strongest performance on an estimate basis.
The decisive variable are the lots with Estimate on Request. In 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, the Estimate on Request lots provided a decisive boost to sales.
The three phases are still visible in these aggregate charts and the average lot performance below. The transition between phase two and phase three of the market is clearly shown in the average price chart below. The second phase of the recent market begins in 2010 when average prices are at the same level as the last peak of 2007. Average prices in Evening sale lots peaks again in 2014. Although the average prices bottomed out in 2016, they have consistently recovered over the last two years to match that peak in 2014.
It will be interesting to see whether the market can continue to make progress in the average price gains for Evening sales. This figure is part of what projects confidence and value to buyers and sellers. Anyone following the art market over the last several years will be aware that the auction houses have taken active measures to assure these numbers project strength to their constituents. This is one reason we see the use of third-party guarantees to such a degree these last two years. We have some more detail on that in another post.