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 had a very strong $341.8m Contemporary art Evening sale filled with surprises. The two top lots were sold for $50m prices against estimates that were a fraction of that price. In the case of the Francis Bacon “Screaming Pope” from the Lang estate, the bidding war was expected barring some sudden collapse of the market. Widely viewed as one of the best examples of this coveted part of Bacon’s oeuvre, the painting’s small size dictated a conservative estimate that was likely to see strong bidding. Still, $50m was the kind of price that requires more than hope to achieve.
San Francisco MoMA’s 1960 Mark Rothko painting was originally viewed as aggressively estimated when Sotheby’s first announced it would come to the block with a $35m price tag. An irrevocable bid was an additional indication that the work might have been priced to perfection. There was even an algorithm that claimed to be able to predict the final price at 15% below the final price Sotheby’s was able to elicit from the buyer.
The success of those two works stands in contrast to seven of the other eight works in Sotheby’s top ten which were sold for prices within the estimate ranges. There were plenty of other occasions for fireworks in this sale but they took place lower down the price spectrum further differentiating Sotheby’s from its main rival.
We’ll have more on the sales composition in our analysis next week. In the meantime, let’s look at how this sale stacks up against the last 12 years of May sales.
The sales history has been erratic over the last four years but 2019 is a peak for the period beginning in 2016 when Sotheby’s underwent a substantial change in leadership.
Looking at the same period through the lens of guarantees, we can see that Sotheby’s was able to increase its Evening sale volume while reducing the portion of the sales total generated with guarantees and irrevocable bides. In 2017, the majority of the sale was generated with outside backing. This week Sotheby’s realized the highest result with the least volume of irrevocable bids since 2013.
In terms of aggregate estimates and performance, the sale total has come in squarely between estimates for the last three years even as the aggregate estimates have risen steadily.
The average lot performance is even more consistent back to 2015 with the estimated works performing, on average, within the estimate range. This year, the average performance was approximately the same as the previous year even if the estimate range was slightly higher. Nevertheless, the trend of the last two years has been upward.