There were a number of notable results in the London sales of Contemporary art this February. The headline numbers were down but the market itself seems to be secure. In March 2019, the total spend in the Contemporary Evening sales was £209m; but this February that number is £171m, an 18% decrease in sales. Across all sales, last year’s London Contemporary art auctions totaled £252m, while this year’s total was £209m, a 17% decrease in total.
Although 17% is not a massive decline, it signals some key changes in the market. Many observers have focused on the declining top line results and assumed the art market is in retreat. That may be the case. But the internal dynamics discussed here suggest an active, healthy auction market but for lower value lots. Higher value works may be transacting on the private market more these days, if anecdotal reports are to be believed. In recent years, the top auction houses have focused on bolstering Contemporary art sales in the value market. This season, there was a consistent showing across the houses of new works by several emerging artists such as Jordan Casteel, Eddie Martinez and Tschabalala Self in the Evening sales. Novelty seemed to be valued this season.
Last year, the March Day sales of Contemporary art totaled £43m. This season, the combined total across Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips in Contemporary art Day sales was £38.8m, reflecting a slight decline of 10% from 2019. These numbers suggest there has been a plateau in the growth of the middle-market. While the top lot prices in the Evening sales are lower than last year, the results show that interest has collectively shifted to artists with lower auction records, rather than the market diminishing all together.
The value of the top ten lots sold in the entire Contemporary category during the week was £73m, making up 35% of the combined total sales. This year, the concentration of value in the top lots is slightly lower compared to last year. In March 2019, the top ten lots made up 47% of the total Evening sales, in 2020 that figure is down to 41%. The average price of each lot in the Evening sales has seen a decrease of 24%, from £1.7m in 2019 to £1.3m in 2020. The Day sales only saw a slight decrease in average price from 2019 to 2020 of about 4%.
London February 2020 Contemporary Art Evening Sale Summary
None of the top 40 Day sale lots reached a selling price of £1m (See chart below). The top ten lots in the Day sales reached a combined total of only £5.7m this year, a substantial drop from last year’s top ten total of £8.4m. This 32% decline is significant for Day sale figures and raises the possibility that the smaller Evening sales this year required some higher value day sale works to be ‘promoted’ to the Evening sales thus shifting some of the day sale value into the Evening sales.
In the Evening sale, the number of lots bid above the high estimate was only 21%, lower than the percentage of works sold below the low estimate which was 26%. In the Day sale, 29% of the lots were bid above the high estimate and 38% were sold within the estimate.
Both sales had similar hammer ratios (the hammer total divided by the aggregate low estimate) of 1.03 for the Evening sale and 1.05 for the Day, but the strength of bidding was greater in the Day sale. Overall, the Evening sales carried estimates that were harder for the lots to achieve.
London February 2020 Contemporary Art Day Sale Summary
In the market share results, David Hockney is still leading in greatest share of dollars spent in London. Last year, Hockney’s market share was 16.75% most of that attributable to the sale of Barney Ebsworth’s dual portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott. This year’s offering The Splash sold for a figure presumed to be the guarantee disappointing many spectators who had hoped to see the lot spark competition.
Jean-Michael Basquiat remains in third place compared to 2019, with a market share still between 5 to 6%. Among the top artists, Richter’s share saw a notable decline by 8.7%, with a few lots failing to surpass their low estimates. Damien Hirst has surfaced again in the top ten ranking for artist’s share. His results were not among the top 40 in the 2019 equivalent London sales.
The other notable feature of the market share table is the return of Andy Warhol to the number two spot. Warhol has jumped back up with £13.7m, a far greater total spend than last year’s £3m in London. That total figure was driven in part by the sale of a selection of Athlete portraits from the Richard L. Weisman collection. But after several years of declining sales volume, the Warhol market seems to be showing some signs of life.
Christopher Wool, Yves Klein and Francis Bacon were among the top ten artists with market shares that increased unexpectedly. In the 2019 London Contemporary sales, these artists’ combined results were not among the top market share rankings.
Notably, Lichtenstein’s share has fallen substantially with total sales only amounting to £1.8m this year, a major decline compared to the total spend of £10.6m for the artist in 2019. Surpassing Lichtenstein’s share was the work of Eddie Martinez, a young Brooklyn-based artist, who has only been featured in the commercial sphere since 2016 has risen to the ranks of Fontana and Condo. While this year’s London Contemporary sales were tepid, several young artists showed strong potential with competitive bidding and high hammer ratios. In contrast, the usual top competitors performed less impressively against their estimates.
London February 2020 Contemporary Evening Sale Top 50 Lots
The next two charts reflect key moments central to the overall auction results and the bidding behavior. The chart above reflects the top lot performance in the Evening sales. The chart below reflects the same for the Day sales. In the Evening sales, the top of the market clearly struggles against consignor’s expectations with 28% of the top 50 lots failing to reach their low estimate. As usual, the middle market tends to experience strong competition for the top lots, where buyers find the values to be more conservative.
London February 2020 Contemporary Day Sale Top 50 Lots
The list of Evening sale works that exceeded estimates is small this season. Only one work in the top 20 lots, Albert Oehlen’s Periscope exceeded is high estimate. Works in the £4-6m range struggled most in the top range to perform. Works by Andy Warhol, Jean Dubuffet and Wayne Thiebaud which were priced in the £1-2m range surpassed their high estimates.
The top of the lots on the Most Dynamic works list is one that received attention for selling over ten times its high estimate. Amoako Boafo’s The Lemon Bathing Suit (2018) opened Phillip’s Evening sale with a bidding frenzy. Other painters making the list were Julie Curtiss and Eddie Martinez, whose markets seem to have seen a meaningful surge this season.
London February 2020 Contemporary Evening and Day Sale Top 50 Lots