This analysis the past 10 years of Second Quarter sales at the three main auction houses—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.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale came in slightly above the previous year’s sale but for a number of internal reasons, it was far stronger than that sale. The two events represent a sea-change in Sotheby’s Imp-Mod performance in May with totals approaching peak years like 2012 and within striking distance of the top in 2015.
The sales total was very top heavy with the top ten lots representing 70% of the total and more than 50% of the total coming from the top three lots. That highlights what a selective market Imp-Mods is but these results are better because they don’t rest upon third-party guarantees that evinced no competition.
As far as the sales history goes, you can see from this chart, below, that a few works offered without published estimates can have an outsized effect on the May results. In 2012, the EOR results shot the total above trend for the sales. It wasn’t until three years later that the sales would post much stronger numbers. That proved unsustainable.
Last year’s results were highly dependent upon the buying and selling of one important market-making family. This year, the sale is riding on a broader base.
It is worth paying attention to the number of lots sold in last night’s sale. The high sell-through rate of 90%, which reflects strong sale management on Sotheby’s part, yielded one of the highest level of lot sales since the peak year of 2015.
Those greater number of lots contributed to a larger aggregate estimate range, visible in the chart below. Though estimates remain below the below the optimistic 2014-25 era.
Average lot performance remains quite low against average estimates but the number is improving as Sotheby’s was able to convince sellers to compromise on reserve prices. The long-term trend in these sales is toward higher average prices but they remain well below the pre-financial crisis era when there was broader buying in the Impressionist and Modern market. Simply put, buyers will no longer bid on average works by name Impressionists. However, the works they will bid fiercely for remains somewhat of a mystery to everyone but the bidders.