This analysis of the November 2019 New York Impressionist and Modern sales is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The November sales of Impressionist and Modern art in New York were down substantially from the previous year—the combined Evening sales were down by a third from the $621m of November 2018—but the internal dynamics of the sales were substantially better. This paradox is a reminder that the headline numbers in an auction cycle are often dependent upon the top lots reaching a sufficient level.
In the November sales, only nine lots were sold for prices above $10m. The year before there were 19 lots above $10m. In 2018, the top ten lots totaled $245m; in 2019, that figure was $160m. The next ten lots in 2018 totaled $135m; in 2019, those next ten lots amounted to $76m. The far greater drop in value was seen in lots 11-20 than in lots 1-10.
If the top 20 lots in the 2019 sales were so much lower, the strength the sales came in their stronger sell-through rates, better hammer ratios and more day sale lots selling. In the Evening sales, there were virtually the same number of lots sold in 2019 as 2018; the day sales saw an increase in sold lots of nearly 12%.
The Evening sales saw the average price fall from $5,917,380 to $4,119,558. That’s a big drop. But we can point to the dearth of lots above $10m to explain that. Unfortunately, the average price level for day sale lots fell in 2019 from $176,971 to $160,236. A close look at the numbers suggests that fall might be such a bad thing for the Impressionist and Modern market. The day sale totals of Impressionist and Modern art were up a little more than $1m taken together. That’s a slight rise, less than 2% but still a rise in value.
Interestingly, the top ten lots in the day sale were cheaper by more than $1m. In 2019, the top ten day sale lots of Impressionist and Modern art sold in November totaled $16.6m. The year before that number was $17.9m. The 2019 top ten accounted for 18% of the total Day sale value. The year before it was almost 20%.
The Day sales of Impressionist and Modern art have struggled to perform in recent years as tastes have moved away from the Imp-Mod market and toward contemporary art. To be sure, the very top works of Impressionist and Modern art remain the most valuable works of art and the place where art trades as an asset with lasting value. But for the day sales, which feature minor works by major names or works by minor artists or works on paper, interest had been waning.
These numbers are not a turnaround; however, they are a glimmer of life in the depths of the Imp-Mod market. If that glimmer is the sign of real activity, we will all want to pay attention.
The final statistic that points to a healthier Impressionist and Modern art market is the hammer ratio for both sales. In November 2019, both the Evening and Day sales saw higher hammer ratios (the hammer price divided by the aggregate low estimate.) In 2018, the hammer ratios were .75 for the Day sales and .89 for the Evening sales. The next year those ratios had risen to .83 and 1.05. Higher sell-through rates were mostly the reason for the stronger hammer ratios. But estimates were also more achievable this year than last year.
The market share numbers have Pablo Picasso in pride of place as usual. Claude Monet was in second with strong but diminished sales compared to the previous year. Picasso’s share of the value of these sales was up in 2019 but Monet’s was down slightly, no doubt based upon the vagaries of supply. But Rene Magritte was stronger this season with $43m in sales and 8.5% market share, numbers almost equal to Monet’s which is a surprising show of market strength for the Surrealist painter. Giacometti, too, was slightly stronger than the year before. Almost the exact same dollar volume of works by Pissarro sold in November but the smaller sales meant his work had a slightly higher share of the overall spend. Tamara de Lempicka has a similar market tale with $18.6m in November 2019 versus $15.76m in 2018 but nearly a doubling of market share to almost 4%.
Among the list of top works in the Evening sale, we can that the top lots performed better than estimates. The $5m estimate level proved somewhat risky for these sales. Only one work carrying that low estimate was bid above the estimate range. That was surprise painting by Vincent van Gogh. The other seven works among the top lots that were priced at $5m were sold within or below the estimate range. Several works initially priced at $2m or $4m attracted strong bidding. While other works priced at $6m or above also attracted bids and outperformed. But there was something about the $5m price that turned buyers off.
Selling prices in the Day auctions were generally more in line with estimates. Higher value works carrying higher estimates sold for more money. You can see in the chart above that with the exception of another van Gogh from the day sales and a Monet fragment of a Nymphéas painting, the top lots in the day sales (although selling well above their low estimates) were among the top estimates for the works. The selling prices for the top day sale lots were very strong and do seem to suggest the Impressionist and Modern market has some life left to it after all.
That brings us to the final chart of works that received the most dynamic bidding and attention. With the exception of the Boccioni, none of the most dynamic works were priced in the seven figures. Most were quite low in their initial estimates.