This analysis of the October 2019 Frieze Contemporary in New York is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The Frieze auctions were down a little under 12% from 2018. That’s a meaningful drop but hardly the dramatic fall that talk of Brexit and an uncertain art market would suggest. That 12% drop came mostly from the fall in the average price level. There were approximately the same number of works offered in 2018 and 2019 with a slightly lower sell through rate this year: 86% in 2018; 83% in 2019.
The average price for 2018 was £424k; in 2019, the average price was £380.144. That’s a 10% drop.
That’s not necessarily bad news. These numbers suggest, along with other market factors, that the lower price points are strengthening, not weakening, and the market is building a broader base of buying. That broader base is good news for the auction houses who make better margins from the cheaper lots and better news for the market participants. It suggests a greater distribution of buying activity (although that is not verifiable from the publicly available numbers.)
The good news is that the hammer ratio, the overall hammer total divided by the aggregate low estimate, rose year over year. Last year, estimates were aggressive and although there were strong sales, the final prices had trouble keeping up with the sellers’ expectations. This year, the hammer ratio is a relatively stronger 1.1. That’s not bullish but it is better than last year. Any number over 1 is good sign for the market overall. It means there is competition and a buying across the board.
One more statistic worth paying attention to is the portion of the total sale that the top ten lots accounted for. In 2018, the top ten lots totaled £79m which represented 30.3% of the overall sales volume. This year that figure dropped to £65m and 28%. That’s not a huge move. The drop is smaller than the drop in average price, suggesting there’s more sales volume at lower price points.
The market share chart also tells an interesting story. Lucio Fontana, the Argentine-Italian artist, once had auction volume that only rivaled Andy Warhol’s. Warhol’s work has shrunk by another 25% from 2018 to 2019. In sterling, that’s a fall from the already low base of £2m last year to £1.5m this year. Fontana has remained stronger. In 2018, Fontana was the top artist in these sales by market share. That was £27m and a little more than 10%. Somewhat reflecting Sotheby’s choice not to hold a separate Italian sale , Fontana’s numbers fell to £12m this year and his market share was cut in half to 5%.
Gerhard Richter had a resurgence of relevance this year. He was the second most valuable artist in these sales behind Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat had a little more than 9% to be top artist of the cycle. Richter hit 8% and £18m. Both were up substantially from the previous year. Then Basquiat had a 1% share for £2.8m; Richter had 2% from £5.3m in sales.
On the strength of one record-breaking work and a smaller lot, Banksy took the fourth spot in the market share rankings with more than 4% of the spend in the sales. Pierre Soulages made a strong showing in the rankings in London which is unusual for him. Alberto Burri, Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke rounded out the European painters in the top ten artists by market share.
Philip Guston and Alex Katz both made surprise showings both because of their unusual market strength and the general perception that these American artists are difficult to sell in London. That was not true this year with strong sales by both, including a record price for Katz. There were big expectations about KAWS’s market which has been quite strong leading up to these sales. Only seven KAWS lots were offered in London. Two outperformed estimates; one underperformed and one lot was unsold. This may be an indication that KAWS’s market is cooling after huge acceleration or it might mean his market is elsewhere with the most important sales taking place in Hong Kong and New York.
Female artists were not very well represented among the top artists by market share. Bridget Riley, Joan Mitchell and Cecily Brown were the only ones to make an impact.
Except for the surprise Banksy lot that sold at more than six times the low estimate, the top lots of the week were all sold at compromise prices. Above £5m there seemed to be little appetite to spend or, at least, bid aggressively. Below £2m bidders had a much greater appetite for works. Those were led by the Guston and Katz paintings. Works by Richter, Riley, Soulages, Dubuffet and Carl Andre had strong bidding above the estimates too.
Except for the Banksy, the list of most dynamic lots was almost exclusively five-figure and low six-figure lots. This would seem to be a testimony to the demand for new artists, a turn in the market after several years of chasing under-valued historical masters.