This detailed analysis of the February 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 top lot in London’s Contemporary art auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips may have been a $50m David Hockney double portrait but the sales were significant for their shift to lower priced works. The sales overall offered fewer lots than the previous year and generated lower overall revenues than the previous year. The combined total for March 2018 was £347m against a total of £251m this year. The pre-sale low estimate for 2019 was down 25% from 2018; the premium totals for the sales were down slightly more at 27.6%. The Evening sale total was down 27% but the day sales were down almost 30%.
Day sale growth has been integral to the growth of the Contemporary art market recently. That growth seemed to have reached a limit last Fall in New York. It is true that the Mid-Season sales in New York held around the same time were up substantially which might have taken some dollar volume away from the London sales. We’ll have to wait until the Contemporary day sales in New York to get a better sense of where that middle market is moving.
In the meantime, it is worth taking a close look at the London results if for no other reason than to pay attention to the dramatic changes in market share from last year to this year. Before we get there, let’s look at sales statistics for the Contemporary Day and Evening sales. The £208m London Evening sales had a potent 91% sell-through rate which is partly explained by the generous use of third-party guarantees in the category. Third Party Guarantees in London were also used for lots carrying low estimates starting at £600k.
The composition of those sold lots was fairly evenly distributed across the bidding bands—sold above estimates, within estimates and at compromise prices—but the Evening sale numbers were skewed toward selling at compromise prices which accounted for 36.5% of the sold lots. 32.5% of the lots were sold within estimates and the remaining 30% was sold above the estimate range.
The hammer ratio of total hammer price paid over the aggregate low estimate was 1.05 which is weak but still positive for the Evening sale. The Hockney was important for the total value of the sales. The top ten lots accounted for 47% of the Evening sale total. That’s up from 41% last year even though there were several more lots priced above £10m in 2018. The average price achieved for an Evening sale lot in London this year was £1.698m. The same measure was £1.86m last year.
Shifting to the Day sale statistics we see more deceleration. There were a 13% fewer lots offered in London this year but 30% lower sales totals. The sell through rate for the Day sale was 78% this year against a very robust 87% last year. That translated into £42.9m in sales volume. The hammer ratio was 1.03, weaker than the Evening sale and substantially lower than last year’s 1.21 hammer ratio. 37.9% of the lots in the Day sale were sold at hammer prices above the estimate range. 42% of the lots were sold in the estimate range. A much smaller fraction of 20% had to be sold at compromise prices. Consignors were clearly more willing to take back their works than have to lower their expectations about the value of those objects.
Finally, the top ten lots in the day sale accounted for 19% of the total and the average price for a day sale work was £105k. That’s up on the proportion side from 14% and down on the average price side from £118k last year. These numbers suggest the day sales are less broad-based in value this year. That may be an accident of supply where collectors and dealers have little incentive to sell their best material right now. It also suggests a more selective market.
The market share table is quite interesting to read through. Some familiar names like Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Basquiat are alongside Lucio Fontana among the top five names driving this market. David Hockney has the most dramatic move in market share due to the sale of the double portrait and a few other works. Last year, Hockney sold £5m worth of work and accounted for less than 1.5% of the sales total versus his 16.75% this year.
Normally, Andy Warhol holds that top spot in value as he did in 2018 with almost 10% of the spending. This year Warhol didn’t even make the top 10 artists by market share—he was number 15!, behind Cecily Brown and George Condo. Those two artists have become increasingly important to the middle of the Contemporary art market. It was not a surprise to see Roy Lichtenstein in the top five but Nicolas de Staël and Adrian Ghenie did make their way into the lower reaches of the top ten artists of the sales cycle.
Turning toward the top lots of the London sales we can see that there is only a small number of works that were the subject to aggressive bidding and a substantial portion of the top 40 lots were sold at compromise prices. That’s not a great sign for the market and may be an indication that seller’s expectations, even without many lots estimated over £3m are too high to attract bidders and determined buyers.As with the Modern sales, the most dynamic bidding was seen on the lower valued lots with estimates in the four and five figures. Drawings by Basquiat and Twombly were the only two six-figure works to attract many bidders willing to go a great distance to get their prize. Jordan Casteel, Daniel Buren and Hurvin Anderson all attracted some of the most aggressive bidders but still the lots did not breach the £300k barrier which one might view as the bottom of the much-discussed middle market. Günther Förg, Dana Schutz, George Condo and Peter Doig all saw examples of their work attract aggressive bidding.