This analysis of the November 2019 New York Contemporary sales is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
There were a number of notable anomalies in the New York sales of Contemporary art earlier this month. The headline numbers were down significantly but the market itself seems to be strengthening. How is that possible? Well, the curious thing about the art market is that the concentration of value in the very top of the market can drive headline sales without actually producing a robust market for art. The pool of buyers for works priced above $50m is obviously quite small no matter how many very wealthy persons there are in the world. But what has become apparent this season, like no other season before it, is that the market for still quite valuable works of art priced anywhere from the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even to the single-digit millions, is experiencing a critical mass moment.
This is most visible in a single comparison of statistics. The total dollar volume spent on Contemporary art this year in New York declined from the previous year by 21%. The Evening sale total was down even more than that. In November 2018, there was $994m in art purchased in the Evening sales of Contemporary art; but this November that number dropped to $704m or 29% lower year-over-year.
This is the big decline that many observers remarked upon both before and after the sales. What few have noticed is that the Day sale totals were up dramatically. For several years, the auction houses have been concentrating on increasing the sales of Contemporary art in the so-called middle market often seen best in the day sales. Sotheby’s has been particularly aggressive in building this high-volume (of lots) and high(er) margin business segment.
Last year, the November day sales of Contemporary art totaled $218m. That was considered quite strong and a testament to the vibrancy of the market. This November, Christie’s posted a $117m day sale of Contemporary art, a record for this type of sale. The total across Sotheby’s, Phillips, Christie’s and Bonhams in Contemporary art day sales was a whopping $263m. That’s a nearly 21% rise from an already strong base.
It’s too early to tell. But the numbers suggest we’ve reached new territory in the Contemporary art market.
Underscoring the strength of the middle market, the Day sale total of $263m was greater than the value of the top ten lots sold in the Contemporary category during the week which was $251m. This ratio of top to bottom is unusual in the marquee New York sales where the most expensive works of art are sold and the concentration of value is greatest.
The other striking statistic from the overall market is the decline in average price this season from one year ago. In November 2018, the average price of a work of Contemporary art in the New York sales was $1.34m; this year that overall average price dropped to $985k. That was a 26% drop in average price. If we split the sales and look at the year-over-year change we can see a divergence from Day to Evening sale. The Evening sale average price dropped by 19% from $6.54m to $5.3m while the Day sale rose 8% on an average price basis from $289k in 2018 to $313k in 2019.
Let’s pause for a moment on that figure. The average price of a work of Contemporary art in the Day sales was $313k. That’s a substantial sum.
Part of the rise in Day sale value is attributable to works that might have previously been sold in Evening sales appearing in the Day sale auctions. The top 40 or so Day sale lots made prices over a $1m. (see chart below) More than half of those lots had low estimates above the $1m mark. So it isn’t simply a function of dynamic bidding in these markets (though there was a fair bit of that visible) but a more valuable works being sold during the day.
Finally, it is worth noting the strong Hammer Ratio (the aggregate hammer price divided by the aggregate low estimate) seen in both the Evening and Day sales suggests the general mood of doubt surrounding the art market may be mistaken. Third-party guarantees are responsible for some of the strength because they prevent works from being bought in. In the Evening sale, one can see that only 22% of the lots were bid above the high estimate. In the Day sale, the number of lots bid above the high estimate was a whopping 40%.
Both sales had similar Hammer Ratios of 1.15 for the Day sale and 1.17 for the Evening sale but clearly the strength of bidding was greater in the Day sale.
Making a quick turn to market share, it is worth noting that seven of the artists with the greatest share of dollars spent in New York this month were women. That’s not a spectacular number as many commentators will point out. But it is still good to see Vija Celmins, Julie Mehretu and Ruth Asawa join Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Yayoi Kusama.
The other notable feature of the market share list is the return of Andy Warhol to the top of the list. Though Warhol is not in his usual top spot, the $55.6m spent on Warhol’s art is more than the $38m paid the year before. That total figure was helped, no doubt, by the sale of a $19m guaranteed Big Electric Chair and the $10m late portrait of Muhammad Ali. The large volume of works by Ed Ruscha sold in November along with his painting achieving the highest price of the sales put the California artist in the unaccustomed position of leading the market share table.
Christopher Wool fell a couple of places in market share from 2018 to 2019 but the dollar volume was a much greater drop from $33.3m to $19.8m. Calder fell further from $51m to $14m this sales cycle but the composition of those sales was stable. Six million dollars of Calder sales were achieved between the estimates. About the same value of sales ($4m each) went for sums above the estimate range and for compromise prices.
Wayne Thiebaud’s sales volume doubled from $9m last year to $18m this year. That $18m got slightly more market share too. Almost the exact same dollar value was spent on works by George Condo this November compared to last November. There was a slight fall in the dollar volume of KAWS works from $10.1m last year to $8.1m. So, although there is the widespread perception that KAWS’s market has cooled, it seems more that our expectations have changed and the current sales at market valuations are having less of an impact on our impressions.
These next two charts get to the heart of the matter in these sales. The chart above are the top lots in the Evening sales. As always, we’ve color coded whether the lot sold below, within or above the estimate range. The chart below does the same for the Day sales. The first impression the color coding gives the viewer is a lasting one. The top of the market struggles against seller’s expectations whereas the middle market is still animated by strong competition for lots buyers perceive to be undervalued. Among the artists signaling strong demand are Ruth Asawa, Alex Katz and Wayne Thiebaud.
The list of Evening sale works that exceeded estimates is quite small this season. They run the range of value from the top lot Ruscha to a $275k Tschabalala Self painting that carried a $120k low estimate and a $400k Julie Curtiss work that carried a $30k low estimate. Highlighting how bidders focused on specific lots, the list of dynamic Evening sale lots ranges from trendy names like Adrian Ghenie to market stalwarts like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell to painters like Günther Förg whose market run had seemed to have run its course but now indicates interest at a new level.
The most dynamic list for the Contemporary day sales has a number of works that had extraordinary runs. The top of that list is the one that got the most attention earlier this month. Michael Armitage’s work has been recognized by MoMA. Notheless, the 25-fold bidding over the low estimate is a remarkable turn of events. That result should not obscure the strong 10x performance of street artist Invader’s work or the 10x result for another Julie Curtiss painting. The highest value work on the list is one of the three Ruth Asawa sculptures that made the list. The $4m final sale price against a $700k pre-sale estimate.
Other painters making the list were Cuban Concretist, Lolo Soldevilla, and Eddie Martinez, whose market seems to have made a small but significant jump this season.