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.
Last night’s PWC Evening sale at Christie’s might not have been the biggest May Evening sale but it was something of a dramatic turn from previous years both in the absence of works offered with estimate upon request and for the volume of art that traded hands with a total just behind the peak years of 2014 and 2015.
The top-heavy sale, three works were offered with low estimates of $50m, had 70% of the value in the top ten lots, was notable for the number of works sold, 91%, and the greater value of the sale offered with a financial backing of any kind.
Turning to the charts of the last 13 years, we can see that this May was reflects a broader trend of rising sale values even if the previous year was one of retrenchment. Whether the lack of works offered without published estimates is a function of the large number of estates populating these sales or the overall stability of the market is hard to tell. Unpublished estimates are simply a tool used by the auction houses to give their specialists more freedom in adjusting seller expectations to buyer interest. It stands to reason that a market where values are more readily agreed upon allows for more definitive estimates even if those estimates are quite broad like the $50-70m range proffered for the three top lots.
According to Pi-eX’s research the value of guaranteed lots in these sales has been much higher, especially in the peak years of 2014 and 2015. The use of third-party guarantees has also been much higher in the previous two years matching—in fact, leading—industry practice.
The presence of so many estates again made it easier for Christie’s to provide more direct financing, especially of the Newhouse estate, though there was a flurry of guarantees covering several lots announced at the beginning of the sale suggesting the team was working hard to achieve a desired outcome of market stability.
Because all of the lots were estimated in last night’s sales, the aggregate estimates were substantially higher for 2019 than the three previous years. Those aggregate low and high estimates nearly matched the figures for 2015 (which also had works offered without estimates.) On a like for like basis, 2019 out-performed 2015. In fact, 2019 showed the highest aggregate sales total when excluding works offered without published estimates.
On the basis of average low and high estimates as well as average lot performance, 2019 was a sea change for Christie’s PWC sales. Average estimates were substantially higher than ever before and average prices were well above the previous high in 2012 (remembering that these calculations are made excluding the works sold without published estimates.) A speculative conclusion might be that the art market has become much more comfortable with works priced in the $50m+ range. Consignors are less in need of a means to change their mind mid-sale process.