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.
There’s no mistaking that the London Impressionist and Modern sales were way down from previous years even if they ended up being about the same level as the comparable sales in June 2016. The drop in combined sales value from last year to this was 36% across Christie’s and Sotheby’s day and Evening sales. The weakness in the sales this year was evident in some of the internal dynamics. First among those was a significant drop in the hammer ratio which is the total hammer price divided by the aggregate low estimate of all the auctioned (not withdrawn) works. A strong hammer ratio is 1.2. The Impressionist and Modern category tends to have a lower hammer ratio reflecting the picky market and the lower sell-through rates. Last year, these sales had a .93 hammer ratio which is fairly weak and a cause for concern even in this category. This year’s sales had a .73 hammer ratio. That means the bidding was softer than last year’s relatively soft market. Overall sales volume can be affected by a number of causes out of the market’s control. Estate material is particularly driven by factors that lie outside of the market at times. The combination of a substantial drop in market volume and a drop in hammer ratio suggests the strong Imp-Mod category of the last year or two may be coming to an end. To be fair, there has been a lot of estates on the market. Buyers have had plenty of opportunities and much money has been spent. These weak sales numbers may have as much to do with the end of the cycle as they do with overall market interest.
The rest of the internal numbers also showed weakness in these sales: the 65% overall sell-through rate across all sales; the £455k average price down from £559k the previous year; the £2.4m Evening sale average price down from £3.4m the year before; and the 59% of the total sale value coming from the top ten lots.. None of these numbers are inspiring. 45% of the sold lots made prices within the estimate range. Only 28% of the lots were bid above the range; 26% got sold off at compromise prices. These statistics suggest consignors were more willing to take their works home with them rather than accept a price below expectations.
The market share numbers are interesting with Monet just edging out Picasso with each attaining 16% share. A single work put Modigliani in third place with 11%. Miró re-emerged on this list with a 7% share. Pissarro doubled the money spent on his canvases from 2018 to 2019 but gained much more market share to come in with 5.6%. Magritte sold significantly more this year than last (£9m to £5.9m) and more than doubled the market share. Alfred Kubin was represented by a cache of 16 restituted works. One in the Evening sale and the remainder in the day sale. The three most valuable examples each sold for prices slightly above a million dollars. All together, the Kubins made £4.2m which put him in the top ten for the week.
The top forty lots in the sale were mostly sold within estimates. Eleven of those lots failed to reach the low estimates; only nine of the lots exceeded estimates including the three Kubins.
Kubin dominated the list of works with the most dynamic bidding. Beyond that, Egon Schiele and August Macke saw much higher results from a higher base with works that were estimated at £200k. High five-figure and low six-figure works by Piet Mondrian, Camille Pissarro and Kees van Dongen also drew aggressive bidding. The rest of the works on the list were low value objects once again highlighting the way this market searches for overlooked items rather than bidding up the middle market works.
Our friends at Pi-eX broke down the last 13 years by the value of the works. This is a revealing graph for this sales cycle. Notice the expanding band of works between £1m and £4m since 2016. The collapse in these sales came from the works above £4m. That may be a function of supply and the estates getting featured in New York. It may also be a product of Asian buyers entering the Imp-Mod market at the top with less interest in the middle market works which were so consistently a pillar of the years 2007-2015.