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.
The London Contemporary sales had the feeling of an after-party that was dutifully attended by an exhausted crowd. The Winter-Spring semester of the 2019 art market has been a long, mostly successful but tiring affair. The June Contemporary art sales in London grossed almost the same amount—down just 4%—as last year but with a much different composition.
The sell-through rate on the London Contemporary sales was nearly the same as the previous year (84% v 86%) but the big news was in the composition of the sales. In 2018, nearly 37% of the lots sold above the high estimate; this year, that number was down substantially to 27%.
These slowing sales dynamics come amid a drop of only 7% in the number of lots offered. Nearly 40% of the lots were sold within the estimate range. That’s up from 34% of the lots in 2018.
Only 21% of the lots, or slightly more than one in five lots, were sold for compromise prices. That was up only slightly from the year before.
Combine these figures with the declining hammer ratio down from 1.15 in 2018 to 1.02 in 2019 and you have a picture of a market that is no longer rising. That’s different from a falling market. The key detail here is the lack of movement in the section of the sales that were sold at prices below the low estimate.
Buyers are not as competitive but they are paying the asking prices sellers want.
Some of the other numbers worth paying attention to are the percentage of the total sale the top ten lots account for. In 2018, it was 47.7%; this year it was 36.7%. So the sales are migrating to the middle of the pricing range rather than to the top few lots.
The average price across all the Contemporary sales in London was £356k, a 6% rise above last year’s figure of £335k. The Evening sale average price was £1.4m this year down substantially from last year’s £1.9m average price. The day sale was £88k both years. Again, the money is migrating to the middle.
You can see this in the market share numbers. Francis Bacon topped the market share this year with 11% based in the sales of two paintings. Jean-Michel Basquiat, last year’s market-share leader, saw his share halved from nearly 16% to 8%. Market stalwart Jean Dubuffet rose from 1.39% to 4.76% with quadruple the sales. David Hockney fell from 6.6% to 2.9%. Albert Oehlen vaulted to 4.6%. KAWS and Wols took strong positions in the 4%-range.
The list of top lots from this year’s sales is a mix of works with high, medium and low demand. High demand works were a bit rarer this year than last. The breakout work by Wols that sold for £4.5m was one of the few that really sparked dogged bidding, as did works by Jeff Koons (a wall relief) and Albert Oehlen. Of course, Cecily Brown continues to spark battles over her works. As did Marlene Dumas and, surprisingly, Takashi Murakami. There was also the intentionally under-estimated small Robert Ryman work sold by a dealer in a cash squeeze. Finally, among the top lots, a Frank Auerbach work also attracted aggressive bidders.
Most of the most dynamic lots, however, were lower-priced day sale lots. The lot with the longest legs was Frank Stella’s Princeton which carried a £10k low estimate and sold for £287k. Eric Fischl’s Message of God had a similar trajectory from £10k to £93.7k. Tschabalala Self is on that list but so is Matteo Pugliese who saw a £20k work sell for £182k. Nicolas Party and Larry Poons were in heavy demand. So was Oscar Murillo who many have left for dead.