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 was a remarkable consistency between the June Contemporary art sales in London in 2018 and 2019 despite a significant shift in the composition of those sales. In the first place, Christie’s returned to the June Contemporary market in London. But their presence did not add volume to the sales. Secondly, the top ten lots in 2018 accounted for £89.7m but the top ten lots in 2019 were 25% lower at £66.4m. This drop came within the context of an 4% drop in the sales total from year to year.
What makes this fall in the top ten total so interesting is that it comes at a time when the Contemporary art market remains strong at auction. According to the Financial Times quoting statistics compiled by Arttactic, a London consultancy that tracks market data by tabulating the publicly reported sales from Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, “Postwar and contemporary art marked a small gain overall, from $2.2bn to $2.3bn, and accounted for 40.7 per cent of the market.”
This chart showing the composition of the London Contemporary sales over the last 13 years makes the point clearly. In 2019, the proportion of works sold at prices above £4m dropped significantly as the proportion of the total sales value from works under £4m and under £1m rose significantly. Works sold at prices below £500k also rose substantially. This is a graphic representation of what many in the past called the shift to the middle market.
It is worth looking closely at the years before. In 2016, a recalibration year for the art market after the peaks of 2014 and 2015, the total sales value for the three bottom categories was close to 2019’s total. This year, there was more value in the two lowest categories than in 2016. This year there was also a smaller proportion of sales for those two bottom categories than in 2011, another year with a similar but slightly lower total of works sold at prices below £4m.
The aggregate sales for these London Contemporary auctions was at the bottom rung of expectations. With no works sold without estimates, there were no large numbers to push the aggregate totals higher. You can see from this chart that 2008, 2010 and 2013 were similar in terms of performance against aggregate estimates. Failure to exceed expectations isn’t uncommon and can take place during potent markets as we can see in 2015’s results. That year’s total was the highest for the period even though it was below the estimate range.
The average hammer price for lots fell this season but was higher than similar—in terms of middle market sales—years of 2011 and 2016. Nonetheless, the average price for this auction cycle was slightly above that of 2015 and the highest for the period after last year’s sharp rise.
Lest you think auction house and third-party guarantees played a role in the year-to-year shift in these market stats, we’re including this chart of the value represented by guaranteed works and ‘naked’ lots. From 2018 to 2019 there was virtually no change in the value of works receiving third-party guarantees or direct auction house support. (Never before in London in June has so much value in these sales been subject to guarantees as these last two years.)