This report on the Summer auctions is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
After a period of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic — which was only resolved by a wholesale restructuring of the international auction calendar — the top three houses finally presented hybrid live auctions of their most valuable works early this Summer.
Houses merged the modern and contemporary art categories and updated virtual platforms to draw global audience and bidding clients to a week of live-streamed marquee sales held around the world. Sotheby’s offered the first market test on June 29th; it yielded $363.2 million. Phillips held a modest $41 million sale comprising mostly works by female and non-white artists. Finally, Christie’s staged a complex, four-auctioneer sale spanning their international sales centers that brought in $420.9 million.
The series of sales were successful enough to encourage Sotheby’s to quickly turn around a second sale, Rembrandt to Richter, to capitalize on the demand. That auction combined a smattering of Old Master works with modern and contemporary art to make $193 million in sales.
Each session proved global demand undiminished by the economic lag. The leading lots of the auctions staged in June and July were by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Joan Mitchell, Joan Miró and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The results from 2019 to 2020 is not a direct comparison due to the reformatted sales but key trends in artists’ markets are still apparent. In Spring 2019, more than $1.2 billion in contemporary art was sold in the New York day and evening sales. That was a rise of 6.7% over the previous year.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale Figures
This year’s auction totals for the day and evening sales of 20th and 21st century art totaled $1.1 billion. The evening sales held by the top auction houses grossed $938.2 million across 222 lots sold. With only 240 lots offered, the result was a highly successful sell-through rate of 93%. The overall hammer price of $801.2 million was above the $711 million aggregate low estimate for a hammer ratio of 1.13. While not indicating a market with prices advancing over estimates, the hammer ratio was far from indicating the kind of weakness many bargain-seeking buyers were hoping to see.
Overall, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips managed to maintain the 2019 sell-through rate. Despite Phillips smaller evening sale of just 25 lots, 17 more works were traded in 2020 and the hammer ratio between 2019 and 2020 did not change. The total hammer price fell by more than $100 million this year, substantially influencing the overall combined premium total between the day and evening modern and contemporary sales.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Day Art Sale Figures
The modern and contemporary day sales brought in $109 million across 695 lots offered, with a sell-through rate of 81%. The day sales realized a hammer total of $88.2 million, against a pre-sale low estimate of $96.8 million. That’s a hammer ratio of .91 which signals real weakness in the day sale market with seller’s expectations sitting above buyer’s appetite. A closer look at the day sale stats shows that slightly more day sale works went unsold than sold for prices below the low estimate. This suggests buyers and sellers are at a standoff with sellers willing to hold out for their expected price and buyers willing to wait them out. This should not be a surprise given how recent the disruptive events of the pandemic have been and the uncertainty around the broader global economy.
By comparison, last year’s New York contemporary day sales alone brought in a total of $240 million with 935 work offered and 875 works sold. That’s an 83% sell-through rate which is fairly consistent with this year’s 81% sell-through rate. Overall in 2019, there were 1,926 day sale lots offered. Compare that with the 695 that appeared this year. That’s a 64% drop in lots offered, a good measure of just how hard it has been to persuade sellers to part with their art works right now (but also a measure of the effect of the lock-down online sales surely had in siphoning works from the day sales.)
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Art Market Share
Francis Bacon’s share of the total sale results this year stands at a solid 7.8% all from a single $85 million lot consigned from the collection of Norweigan billionaire, Hans Astrup. A work from Roy Lichtenstein‘s late-career nude girls series sold by American casino owner and UFC entrepreneur, Lorenzo Fertitta, came in third at 6.63% up 28% from the Pop master’s 2019 season total of $55.9 million. The result was behind Picasso’s 7.09% of the market share, who saw a 49% drop in sales from last year’s $149.5 million— a contraction for the the normally dominant artist despite having several works in the sales that came to the market after decades in private collections. With arguably the broadest market of any artist, Picasso brought in a total revenue of $76.5 million. For several years, the market share of the top artists has been dropping as tastes change and wealthy patrons seek a more diverse range of creators’ works. Th Lichtenstein realized a turnover in the New York contemporary evening sales of $55.9 million.
A case in point was Ginny Williams estate sale that opened Sotheby’s live-streamed auction. It brought to the market deep holdings of high value works by female postwar artists including Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. The Williams auction drove Joan Mitchell’s market share up to 4th place with a total of $48.3 million traded between the three evening sales, doubling last year’s total of $23 million. Mitchell‘s share saw an increase of 2.6%, from 1.89% in 2019 to 4.47% in 2020 (the 2019 market share represents only the contemporary art sector results).
The estate also brought Lee Krasner into the top 25 artist’s by turnover with the sale of RE-ECHO from 1967 making $9 million. That was more than double the pre-sale low estimate of $4 million. Krasner saw the same total value sold as in 2019 with no change in market share. A major estate sale of Latin American artists brought Wifredo Lam and Remedios Varo as a new name to the charts. Lam’s share was another derived from the sale of a single lot.
In the same vein, Helen Frankenthaler placed within the top sixteen artists by market share after realizing $15 million and a 1.4% market share, realizing almost double last year’s auction turnover of $7.5 million. Ruth Asawa saw a new benchmark with the sale of two wire sculptures together for $8.68 million which was just under Richard Diebenkorn‘s $9 million. Diebenkorn’s total was $1 million over his total value last year. The common thread is that high results for female artist are diluting the shares of their male counterparts.
One male artist who made progress was René Magritte. Last year, Magritte’s market share represented in the Impressionist and Modern sales from the equivalent season realized .36% and a total sales result of $2.97 million. This year, among the modern consignments brought to the market, Magritte saw an increase 764% increase in total sales driven my one major lot in the Christie’s ONE sale that brought in $25.6 million.
Andy Warhol, who is typically within the top ten, fell to the 20th slot with just $12.9 million traded across the auctions. One of the most significant changes between 2019 and 2020 was the shift in Warhol’s market share. Last year, Warhol was the leading artist by overall share with $111 million in total sales and this year his total came to $9.9 million with not a single lot making it to the top 40 works sold. In past economic crises, Warhol has served as the bellwether of the market in the evening sales, and this year his presence was largely focused in the day auctions.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Art Top 40 Evening Sale Lots
The ten highest selling lots together brought in $347 million, accounting for a total of 37% of the combined evening sale revenue. Francis Bacon’s mythology-inspired triptych was the highest sale realizing a strong $85 million after a protracting bidding period, hammering at $74 million, within it’s pre-sale estimate range. The third- and fourth-highest sellers, a Brice Marden and Barnett Newman failed to reach their low estimates, but Lichtenstein‘s nude, the runner up to Bacon doubled its low estimate to make $46 million. Picasso and Magritte were the leading modernists in the combined offerings. One of the most important takeaways between 2019 and 2020 was that the top lots performed at the same level. The highest seller of 2019, Jeff Koon’s metallic rabbit brought a total of $91 million—just $6 million over the Bacon result with both estimates around the same value range between $50 to $80 million. The top ten percent value of the overall total saw a decrease by 6% from 2019 to 2020, and the average price of evening sale lots decreased by $1.6 million. The sale of Richard Diebenkorn‘s View from a porch from the Anderson collection was a surprising disappointment, as the strong provenance and exhibition record failed to get the painting to its low estimate of $9 million, hammering substantially lower at $7.7 million.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Top 40 Day Sale Lots
Wayne Thiebaud had a blockbuster season with a large-scale early work from Ken Siebel’s collection setting a new record of $26 million. Thiebaud was the top seller among the day sale lots too. Five Thiebaud paintings offered in the day sales sold for $7.5 million all together. Ruth Asawa’s two hanging sculptures brought $3.3 million, placing her among the top three highest selling artists of the day sale sessions. Thiebaud’s last market peak occurred in 2009 with the estate sale of his principal dealer, Allan Stone. Works by Latin American artists with ambitious estimates like Botero, Tamayo and Orozco failed to reach their low values.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Art Most Dynamic Lots
The artists who performed the best against their pre-sale expectations were mostly emerging names in high demand like Matthew Wong, Amoako Boafo and Otis Quaicoe. Phillips evening sale was responsible for some of these high prices. With a constrained supply on the primary market, Boafo and Quaicoe—both Ghanian-born artists who had their first shows at Los Angeles gallery Roberts Projects—saw aggressive bidding for works with extremely short holding periods. Six Boafo works traded between the day and evening auction, together making $1.6 million. Five of them placed among the top 40 most dynamic lots with hammer ratios between 3.6 and 10.8. Wong, a Canadian self-taught painter who died in December 2019, saw the highest hammer ratio of 25. Realm of Appearances, a star example of Wong’s expressionist style brought in $1.82 million selling for 6,700% over the original private sale price of $22,000. New York-based newcomer Austyn Weiner saw high bidding for a 2020 painting the artist donated to benefit AmFAR in the Christie’s contemporary day sale. The work sold for nine times its low estimate and the primary market price of $10,000.
Works by female artists drew aggressive bidding throughout the day sales. Anna Gunther, Dorothea Tanning and Christina Quarles saw high hammer prices as well. Tanning’s small-scale work, BAPTÊME, carried a strong provenance, having gone long undervalued as it was last sold in an interiors sale at Christie’s in 2012 for €7,500.