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.
It was a big week in New York last week. More than $1.2bn in Contemporary art was sold representing a rise of 6.7% over the previous year. The Evening sale portion of that total rose at a greater rate than the day sale portion. The Evening sales were up by 7.8% while the day sales total increased by only 2.5%.
That disparity was a product of the very top end of the market. In the Evening sale this May, 46% of the $980m total was comprised by the top ten lots for $461m. Last year, that comparable figure was only 36%. Very strong performances for lots by Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko were the heart of that story. When very expensive lots get bid upon aggressively, we should conclude that we’ve seen a shift toward the top of the market. Although the numbers suggest this is more driven by supply—meaning the demand emerged based upon the quality of the lots—than it is by blanket demand or an overall wealth effect. (There’s more to say about this when we get to the top Evening sale lots below.)
Curiously, sell through rates were slightly lower this year over last year which may reflect consignors’ greater willingness to bear risk or even keep their art even in the face of bidding close to their reserves.
Looking at the internal dynamics of the Evening sale, the average price of an Evening sale lot is up sharply—to $6m—over the previous year representing a 9% gain. A third of the Evening sale lots made prices above estimates; 42% were sold within estimate ranges; and a quarter went for compromise prices. The hammer ratio overall was almost the same as the previous year.
In the Day sale, the average price was down 10% to $228k and the hammer ratio fell from 1.20 to a low 1.06 suggesting the middle market has come up sharply against seller’s expectations. On offer were 15% more lots in the Day sales than the previous year. Only 12% more lots sold. Maybe we shouldn’t say “only.” An increase of 12% in volume is part of the reason the value of the Day sale only grew by 2.5%. That’s why the average price is lower. Nonetheless, the important Day sale market where a lot of the real distribution of art work is accomplished was higher this year than last year.
The market share table reflects the very top of the market with the top six names heavily influenced by the sale of a very expensive single work. Warhol’s Double Elvis, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit, Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II, Mark Rothko’s Untitled work from SFMoMA and Roy Lichtenstein’s Kiss II. Even the next two names on the market share list, Alexander Calder and Louise Bouregois, were heavily indebted to a single very expensive example of their work for the bulk of their market share position. It isn’t until you get to Willem de Kooning who had three different works sell in the $10-12m range that we get to an artist with a “broader” market this season.
KAWS got a lot of attention for selling 16 works for a total of $20m and an average price of $1.6m. But the top 10 KAWS works had a total value of $19m and an average price of $1.9m showing that even this new artist’s sales were skewed toward the top of his range. Despite the complaints about KAWS’s success in the market, his works were priced within a rational market structure. The two Kurfs sold for near identical prices. Three Snoopy works were sold at different price points but within a structure of their subject matter. The two top works, In the Woods and The Walk Home , saw prices reflecting the early date in the case of In the Woods and rarity for the SpongeBob work.
Joan Mitchell reached $23m in sales and Helen Frankenthaler came in at $7.5m. Yayoi Kusama accounted for $8.9m of the sales. And Agnes Martin, $6.7m. Cecily Brown was $4.5m; Dana Schutz, $3.9m; and Jenny Saville, $2.7m. All together, women artists were 9 of the 50 top artists with positions evenly spread around the table.
Jonas Wood’s work saw a very big jump from $4.9m last year to $12.3m this season even discounting the charity sale of one of his works, the dollar volume spent on Wood doubled year-over-year.
Keith Haring had a similar jump to $13m helped by the big sale at Bonhams for $4.2m.
Mostly unrecognized in the auction coverage was the very strong week Ed Ruscha’s work had in New York. There was almost $26m in Ruscha sold or 2% of the overall Contemporary market. By comparison, just under $5m in work was sold the year before. That’s a huge rise for Ruscha, including having one of his works in the top 40 lots by price for the week.
Only six of the top 40 lots by price were bid above the estimate range. More than a quarter were sold at prices below the low estimate and the majority for prices that met expectations. That’s another sign that the market for Contemporary art is fully priced but demand is grudgingly willing to meet those prices. The prevalence of chopped bids during the Evening sales underscores the fact that buyers are not eager to pay more than they have to.
In the Day sales, the pricing for the top works is still up for grabs. Nearly a third of the top 40 Day sale works were bid over the estimates. A small number, six, were sold for compromise prices but the names were telling. George Condo has two works on this list, Andy Warhol has one and Wade Guyton another. Not one of these artists is likely to fade but their markets are in a downswing. In the case of Warhol, there seems to be a shift toward accumulation by the big players in this market who have spent the last three years or more sitting out the sales.
The tables representing the works with the most dynamic bidding, broken down by Evening and Day sales, are also interesting. The Koons, Rauschenberg, Bacon and a Joan Mitchell triptych all made it onto the list of works with the most aggressive bidding. Nicolas Party and Jordan Casteel earned high places, as did Bruce Nauman, KAWS, Tomoo Gokita, Barkley Hendricks, Rashid Johnson and Dana Schutz. Larry Rivers and Robert Colescott also had works on the list.
On the Day sale lists, some of the cheapest works were getting the most aggressive bidding. Buyers are looking for gems in the four and five figure range. Cecily Brown and Mickalene Thomas had works with high five-figure estimates get bid to mid-six-figure prices. Mary Bauermeister saw a $40k low estimate work make $350k; Margaret Kilgallen saw another $40k low estimate work make $447k.