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.
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