This detailed analysis of the February Mid-Season Contemporary art sales in New York was made possible with data from our friends at Live Auction Art. It is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscriptions begin with a free month for the curious.
The Mid-Season Contemporary auctions held in New York to fall between the ADAA Art Show and the Armory Show showed a substantial jump this Winter over last year’s results. The combined sales at Sotheby’s, Phillips and Christie’s was $63m (excluding nearly $4m from Sotheby’s fundraising sale for Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut) this year over $53m for the same sales last year.
Just two paintings at Sotheby’s—Jack Whitten’s Special Checking and Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Painter)—account for the entire increase in one year to the next. But that isn’t the entire story. In 2018, there were almost 900 works on offer at the three houses. During that sales cycle, 82% of the lots sold. This February, 80% of the lots sold but number offered was off by a quarter down to 666 from 895 in 2018.
Although the number of works offered and sold were down, the average price per work was $117,119 in 2019 versus $72,141 in 2018. Even if we remove the two top lots, the average price in 2019 remains a very high $98.9m.
Some other important indicators worth noting here. The Top Ten lots in the sales composed 27% of the total sale which is a huge move over the previous year of 20%. The bidding was also strong in New York for these works. The hammer ratio or the amount of the hammer total over the aggregate low estimate was 1.24 in 2019. It has been a much more restrained 1.09 in 2018. To give a little more detail to that raw number, we can see that 37% of the lots offered in the Mid-Season sales were bid over the high estimate. That’s a very strong indictor for this sector of the market. 35% of the lots were sold within the consignors’ expectations and decision makers on 27% of the lots had to make compromises with their expectations to get the lots sold. Overall, that’s reasonably well balanced while showing a bias toward the buy side.
When we look at the top 40 lots by premium price, we can see that only seven works in that group were sold below the low estimate. Nearly half of the lots were sold within the estimate range.
Turning to market share numbers, we can see that the strong sales of a single painting can give an artist like Kerry James Marshall pride of place. Not only that, there was a substantial drop from KJM’s nearly 12% market share from a single work to Jack Whitten’s 4.3% market share also from basically a single sale. George Condo, who dominated the previous year’s market share table with 9% was third also driven primarily by one lot, with 2.6%. Sam Gilliam improved his total for these sales but fell a few clicks in the rankings. The same was true for Jean Dubuffet and Wayne Thiebaud. Alice Neel, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler all gained prominent places on this year’s list where they had been absent the previous year.
As far as works that saw the most aggressive bidding, the list is fascinating list of names. Except for the Kerry James Marshall and Jack Whitten works, the overlap with the top 40 works is remarkably small. In fact, aside from Beauford Delaney’s Abstraction No. 4, every other work on the most dynamic list was priced in the five figures (with a select few four-figure works also subject to intensive bidding.) So, despite the increasing value of these sales, the hunt for works that will become more valuable over time or have been mis-priced or mis-judged continues.
This chart also suggests that the market is doing a pretty good job of pricing works and foreseeing demand. Bidders see more room for growth in value in these lower-priced works than they do in the more valuable works that are well vetted by the auction houses and the market.