This detailed analysis of the February Modern 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.
Sitting in an airport VIP lounge during February’s Evening sales of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist art, a collector set down his iPad after watching the auctions and quipped, Magritte is the new Warhol.
It was a good line because it not only acknowledged the volume of work by the Surrealist master that had sold in the Winter season but it also nodded toward the restructuring of the Contemporary art market that has seen the mysterious disappearance of Andy Warhol from auction market leadership.
But it turns out that something even more fundamental may be taking place in the art market. It was only a year ago, in the same sales, that a mysterious buyer hoovered up works by Pablo Picasso. That buying contributed to the £166m spent on Picasso’s art that season which seemed, at the time, like a harbinger of another big year for the artist. Indeed, it was. The Picasso market reached another apex in 2018 with annual hammer price volume in Evening sales over $550m. The average price was also at a near peak just behind the previous record year of 2015 that saw lower sales but a higher average price.
Perhaps all of that market activity left buyers exhausted. Because this Winter in London, Picasso’s market volume was less than 10% of the previous year’s total. Evening sales totals were off by more than a quarter this season from last. Picasso dominated last year’s sales with 42% of the market; Magritte took top spot this season with 13% of the spending volume.
Looking at the Evening sales totals, we can see there’s a big drop this Winter from the previous year when the premium total was £343m across the three houses. This Winter, Phillips had negligible material from the Modern category which was a contrast to the previous year’s substantial number of works, especially by Picasso.
In addition to the drop in the premium total, the category saw big drop in the hammer ratio or the aggregate hammer price of works against their aggregate low estimate. In 2018, the hammer ratio was 1.22 for the Evening sales and in 2019, it was .89. That means, the aggregate hammer total was below the aggregate low estimate.
The overall sell-through rate was 80% with half the lots selling within estimate range and a third selling above estimates.
In 2019, the top ten lots in the Modern Evening sales took a slightly larger percentage of the total sale value at 56% versus 52% the previous year. Remarkably, the average lot price for an Evening sale lot was down only slightly from £2.9m in 2018 to £2.5m this year.
The Day sale totals were more consistent but still slightly down. This year’s £45m in sales compares with £49m last year. Average prices for the day sale were £94,537 this year and £97,544 last year. Among day sale lots, 40% of the lots were bid over the high estimate; a slightly higher percentage of lots were sold within estimates; and approximately 20% sold at compromise prices.The biggest change in the Winter sales charts is here in the market share numbers where we can see the shuffling of names. Traditionally, Picasso and Monet dominate these tables. But this year, Picasso sits in the seventh position (even if Monet still has the second spot.) But Monet’s market share is primarily the product of a single sale, the week’s most valuable lot. So high value works continue to dominate the market even as the variety of artists who compose the market share is increasing. As pointed out above, Magritte has the rare moment of dominance. But Signac, Caillebotte and Cézanne also appear in the top five slots for market share also primarily on the strength of a single sale.
Looking at the top forty lots by premium price and the forty most dynamic lots we can see there is very little overlap between the two lists. Half of the top lots were bid over the estimates. Very few were high value lots that had to be sold at compromise prices which might reflect the liberal use of third-party guarantees or simply solid management of the sales by the auction houses.
We did see what happens when estimates to get too far from the market in the Wallace sale at Christie’s where a substantial amount of value was bought in. The Cézanne from that sale presents a good example of that dynamic though the data we have seems to mis-state the estimate with the Monet Weeping Willow estimate of £40m. Nonetheless, the Cézanne was sold at a hammer price slightly below the £20m estimate.
The list of works with the most aggressive and dynamic bidding was primarily populated with very low value works with a few notable exceptions like Frantisek Kupka’s Cathedral which was bid from £120k to nearly £800k. Degas’s Trois Danseuse made a rare rise from £800k to £4.1m; and one of the many Magritte’s sold that week was able to achieve a hammer price 4.4 times the low estimate. Works by Emil Nolde and Salvador Dalí also sold for multiples of the low estimate.