This analysis of the 12 years of Impressionist & Modern Art 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.)
There is something going on at the top of the art market. As we’ve seen from our recent posts on the last dozen years in sales information, there is an overall trend over the last three years toward fewer transactions in the Evening sales. This trend is most pronounced and visible in the Impressionist and Modern art field.
In previous posts, we’ve talked about there being three phases to the recent art market: the pre-financial crisis boom, the post-crisis recovery and then the post-2016 correction. In this post-2016 period, especially in the Impressionist and Modern market, the number of works coming to market and transacting has fallen. This fall is significant but not necessarily the cataclysmic event that many feared would damage the Impressionist and Modern market. Indeed, fewer objects transacting is a sign of the market’s health as the value of the works sold in the same period has risen to levels above the previous period of 2009-2015.
Obviously, fewer objects adding up to higher sales volume is a sign that the top of the market is getting more selective and more valuable. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips are contributing to this process by emphasizing the sale of fewer works and looking for the ones that can attract the most value.
If you look at the same transaction history in value terms, meaning the total revenue of the Evening auctions, there’s a different story entirely. The Impressionist and Modern Evening sales have had relatively stable turnover for four out of the last five years. A greater proportion of the value in the Evening sales is coming from a few very valuable lots offered without published estimates in that same period. As we’ll see in later charts, there’s also a greater number of lots and a greater value of the sale associated with guaranteed lots.The aggregate estimates for the last dozen years in the Impressionist and Modern Evening sales also reveal a steady level of expectations for three of the last five years. But, again, in the last two years, works offered without estimate were the decisive element in the auctions beating expectations. For the last two years, works without estimate were a major factor where they played only a small role in previous years. The average price data for these Evening sales has a more interesting story to tell. With the exception of 2016, we can see that there has been a steady rise in average high and low estimates from 2011 until 2017. The average price results follow the same arc with 2018 bringing the average price back to the lower bound of the average low estimate.