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Running concurrently each year with the New York ADAA Art Fair and the Armory Show, the March contemporary art sales, offer a range of works by emerging and established artists. These sales performed well but on par with the same sales in 2019. The combined total from Sotheby’s, Phillips and Christie’s reached $61.8m, a minor decline from the $63m achieved last year. The figures represent a plateau for this sector of the market over the past two years, maintaining a near $10M net gain from 2018’s $53m combined total.
2020 March New York Contemporary Art Sale Summary
In last February’s equivalent sales we saw two paintings by Jack Whitten and Kerry James Marshall achieve a combined total $10m, accounting for the total increase of the season’s results from 2018 to 2019. This major uptick was in part a result of the overall contraction of the number of works offered from 2018 to 2019, from 895 lots to 666. For this year’s sales, the three houses procured around the same number of lots, 670 total; thus, nearly the same amount of sales volume was driven by a broader group of lots that in last year’s sales. We can see this in the average price per work in 2020 which saw a slight decline, from $117,119 in 2019 to $109,759 in 2020.
Despite a less dramatic performance among the highest sold lots this season, the 2020 top ten lots show a concentrated interest in one artist in particular. Three of the top ten paintings were by Wayne Thiebaud — the combined premium price for which make up 42% of the $12.7m top ten combined total.
In the same vein, the top ten lots in the sales comprised 21% of the total sale result, which is a notable decline from last year’s 27%, and moves back to its 2018 marker. Thiebaud’s urban landscape, Civic Center, the top selling work across the three houses sold for $3.3M, while Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Painter) sold for $7.3m in 2019. This $5m difference in the two top lots from 2019 and 2020 is an indication of the impact of the slimming top segment. The cause of the top lot sector tightening has been noted in several annual surveys on the market’s overall health, including the 2020 Art Basel Global Art Market Report – there are fewer ultra-high-value lots available at auction worldwide.
Amidst coronavirus interruptions and increasing doubts about the art market’s March commerce, the demand for these works saw a decline overall from last year. The hammer ratio, the measure of the competition for the art against its estimated value was 1.06 this year, reflecting a more conservative bidding behavior among buyers compared to last year’s 1.24 ratio. Keeping in register with the narrowing of the top ten share, the 2020 hammer ratio has placed below its 2018 marker of 1.09.
During this season’s sales cycle, 84% of the lots sold, up from last year’s 80% sell-through rate, marking an improved outcome in placement of lots with vying collectors. In the below chart, we can see that only one of lots among the top 40 offered in the Mid-Season sales failed to reach its low estimate. 56% of the total lots sold above their high estimate, a strong indicator of the overall health of this sector of the market. 34% of the lots were sold within the their estimates, and only 10% of the lots offered failed to reach selling prices within their consignor’s expectations. Overall, the results show an arc well-managed toward the purchasing base.
2020 March New York Contemporary Art Top Lots
Turning to market share numbers, Thiebaud is leading the group with an 8.71% share, a nearly 7% rise from last year’s 2%. On the 2019 list, the top selling artist, Kerry James Marshall saw a market share of almost 12%. This is a notable drop among the top group. Day sale staples, Yoshimoto Nara, Andy Warhol and KAWs each placed within the top five highest market shares, and did not make last year’s ranking. Nara and KAWS belong to what Artprice notes in recent reporting on the Japanese art market as the Hi-Lite movement — an appendage of Neo-Pop aesthetics associated with the market rise for works that cross boundaries between high art and commercial fetish. Nara’s Knife Behind Back, featuring the artist’s signature Japanese-comic aesthetic set a new auction record of $25m in October 2019 at Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale in Hong Kong. With the artist’s previous record set just at $4m, Nara has seen a major ascent in the contemporary market. Coinciding with their dominance in the private sales sector, both George Condo and Yayoi Kusama, who have historically occupied a meaningful share of these sales dropped off the list. David Hockney, Lee Bontecou and Keith Haring each gained prominent places on this year’s register, where they had been absent the previous year. Igor Mitoraj, postwar Polish artist known best for his large-scale anatomical sculptures performed well unexpectedly among the top contenders, reaching just over half a million dollars.
2020 March New York Contemporary Market Share
Finally, the list of works that experienced the most competitive bidding is telling of the secondary market’s trend toward emerging artists. There is some overlap between the top 40 works sold, most notably for works by Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, whose graphic works, bearing influence from street-art saw aggressive bidding.
2020 March New York Contemporary Art Most Dynamic Lots
Luis Feito and Tadasky are two examples of established artists with institutional backing, whose places among key postwar movements add substantial value for bidders. 48% of the most dynamic lots were priced below the five figures, signaling a heightened engagement with emerging artist markets. On this list, Jonathan Lydon Chase and Julie Curtiss are two ultra-contemporary figurative painters who have seen increasing interest among buyers in search of the market’s next big thing. Lyndon Chase works are hard to come by at auction and two major institutions, the Walker Art Center and Institute of Contemporary art in Miami acquired his works at the 2019 Armory Show. Curtiss’s Surrealist-influenced paintings of the psychosexual and the uncanny have also seen highly competitive bidding in the secondary market. Institutional demand for works by young artists is a key indication of performance in these midseason sales.
Despite the stable gain in value of these sales over the past two years, the pursuit of works by ultra-new and overlooked artists continues to yield unpredictable results. Savvy collectors see value growth potential in works at lower price-points that have a substantive consistency within the contemporary canon.