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The Covid pandemic presented—and still presents—numerous logistical challenges to the auction market for art. The three main houses, Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, were finally able to unlock the auction market this past Summer by creating a new type of livestream auction that barred direct bidding but retained the trappings and excitement of its marquee evening sales. Having been deprived of the opportunity to conduct sales for most of the first half of the year, all three houses tried to make up for the lost revenue with a series of sales in October, November and December that loosely followed the traditional auction calendar.
One outcome of this improvisation was that the old, location-based format, where all three houses converged upon a city to stage sales on successive nights, gave way to sales that often straddled locations on different continents. In an effort to assuage clients, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips held a series of smaller live-streamed auctions dedicated to 20th-21st century art, spread out across the season up until the end of December 2020. Across New York, London and Hong Kong sale locations, there is one observable fact: fewer ultra-high value works have been offered at auction even though there are credible reports that demand remains quite high for these types of works.
Nevertheless, the leading lots of the New York modern and contemporary auctions were those by blue-chip names like Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Paul Cezanne.
October-November 2020 New York Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale Figures
This season’s collective total for the New York day and evening modern and contemporary art sales was $818 million. The evening sales held by the top auction houses grossed $657 million across 148 sold lots. With only 176 lots offered, the sell-through rate was a successful 84% but still lower than the highly managed 90+ percent rates seen in recent years. The overall hammer price of $558.9 million was on par with the $558.6 million aggregate low estimate.
That calculates to a hammer ratio of 1.00. Hammer ratios are a rough measure of overall market demand. Above 1.10, the hammer ratio indicates relatively strong demand. Below, 1.00 the hammer ratio signals market weakness. The figure indicates a lower depth of bidding than seen in the summer, suggesting that demand among top buyers has cooled between seasons.
Another explanation is a high percentage of guaranteed works which hammered around the low estimate in each of the Fall sales. Sixteen works in Christie’s $325.2 million October 20th century art evening sale were backed with financing; in Phillips December evening sale, it was 14 lots making up a low estimated total of $89.6 million, or 81.5 percent of the sale total. In Sotheby’s December evening sale 15 lots were guaranteed, with a collective low estimated sum of $33 million, representing 82 percent of the sale’s total. The high percentage of guaranteed works has tempered the drama of the evening sale, with low bidding for the highest value lots and established male artists remaining the prominent earners.
By the end of the year Christie’s and Sotheby’s reported a drop of 25 percent in annual sales with private sales increasing. Despite the contraction in public auction figures across the market, Phillips managed to reach a milestone during its December New York evening sale, which brought the house’s highest historic total of $136 million across 38 lots— a 25 percent increase over last winter’s equivalent sale.
Much of this unique season, which seemed to favor postwar art historical giants. It was punctuated by controversial museum deaccessions, as well as select billionaire collectors like Ron Perelman and a few corporations selling because of pronounced business setbacks.
July 2020 Global Modern and Contemporary Day Art Sale Figures
The modern and contemporary day sales brought in $155 million across 750 lots sold, with a sell-through rate of 75%. The day sales realized a hammer total of $124.8 million, against a pre-sale low estimate of $140.7 million. That’s a hammer ratio of .89, on par with the .91 in the summer global day sales— signaling a weakness in the day sale market with seller’s expectations above buyer demand. A closer look at the day sale figures shows that more works went unsold than sold for prices below the low estimate (this was also apparent in the summer sale figures)—indicating that buying is less competitive. The remaining question is whether this indicates falling demand or simply disruption in the global market caused by the pandemic.
October-November 2020 New York Modern and Contemporary Art Market Share
Pablo Picasso achieved the highest market share across the modern and contemporary categories with a total turnover of $73 million, just below the $76.5 million generated for the artists in the summer sales. British contemporary artist David Hockney had the third highest auction volume by an artist, a solid 5.03%. The total was generated by a single $41 million lot, a rare landscape from 1990 consigned from the collection of Seattle real estate developer, Richard Hedreen. The fourth highest ranking artist by market share was Alexander Calder. Half of Calder’s total turnover was generated with the $18 million sale of Mariposa at Sotheby’s.
The focus on women artists and artists of color seen in previous seasons is still present in the market share tables, though interest in women artists appears to be waning. Mark Bradford and Barkley Hendricks are in the top ranking market share chart, placing at number 15 and 28 respectively and achieving turnovers between $7 million to $11 million. A flock of Hendricks works sold this season have contributed significantly to a jump in the artist’s market share. He saw a new record with the sale of Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami) at Sotheby’s, which made $3.98 million. Joan Mitchell placed at number 25 this fall, though she came in 4th for the summer sales largely due to a number of valuable works sold from the estate of dealer Ginny Williams at Sotheby’s.
October-November 2020 New York Modern and Contemporary Art Top Evening Sale Lots
The ten highest selling lots together brought in $140.6 million, accounting for a total of 40% of the combined evening sale revenue, that’s up from a third of the evening sale total achieved during the summer evening sale series. Second to the Hockney landscape among the top lots sold was Ron Perelman’s Cy Twombly Bolsena, an example from a series of 14 monumental canvases with the majority in museum collections (Perelman’s Bolsena was one of the prime works in the series and appears to have been purchased by the Nahmad family.) Another top seller was a red Clyfford Still painting, PH-407—a rare lot considering more than 90 percent of the the artist’s output is held permanently at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Estimated at a price of $17 million, the work hammered at $15.7 million, likely going to the guarantor. The results put Phillips in a prominent position relative to its larger competitors Sotheby’s and Christie’s—the boutique house benefitted this season from the shift in the traditional calendar to smaller evening sales held across the season.
Picasso and Cezanne were the leading Modern painters in the combined offerings. The third highest seller, a deep maroon Rothko from the collection of Ron Perelman, made around the time of the artist’s famous Seagram’s cycle, failed to reach its low estimate of $30 million, but Picasso‘s 1941 grey portrait of Dora Maar sold above its highest estimated total of $20 million. Alexander Calder’s mobile Mariposa from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus where it has been since the 1950s unexpectedly more than doubled its low estimate, hammering at a price of $15.6 million.
October-November 2020 New York Modern and Contemporary Art Top Day Sale Lots
In the day sales, Wayne Thiebaud was among the highest sellers. Thiebaud’s market appears to still be riding momentum from the artist’s major record achieved during Christie’s July “ONE” sale, where the Pop-adjacent California painter’s 1962 Four Pinball Machines sold from the collection of West Coast patron Ken Siebel for $19.1 million, more than double the artist’s previous record of $8.5 million. Second to Thiebaud among the day sales’ top sellers was Barkley Hendrick’s 1975 portrait Jackie (Sha-la-la), which sold in Sotheby’s contemporary curated sale, hammering at $2.3 million around the low estimate. Matthew Wong’s market remains strong following his auction debut at Sotheby’s in June and continuously escalating prices. His 2018 landscape “Coming of Age” sold for $1.6 million, 3 times its low estimate of $500,000.
A monumental pastel landscape by French symbolist Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer from the estate of Picasso scholar John Richardson had a pre-sale estimate of $150,000-$250,000 and sold for an impressive $1.96 million, making it one of the best performers in the day sales. Paysage montagneux (1912) was one of three large-scale canvases from the collection of French industrialist Auguste Rateau offered at Sotheby’s London in 1972, where it sold for just £1200 ($1,596). The top result at Sotheby’s means the painting has appreciated in value by a factor of 1,228 times.
October-November 2020 New York Modern and Contemporary Art Most Dynamic Lots
Among the works which saw the most competitive bidding this season were by Black contemporary artists, who have had recent career milestones. Obama-portrait artist Amy Sherald’s The Bathers (2015) sold from the collection of Virginia patrons William and Pam Royall—who amassed a significant collection of works by Black contemporary artists over the course of several decades—was the most dynamic lot of the season. It achieved a staggering hammer ratio of 23.3, bringing the artist’s record to $4.3 million. Attention around Sherald has escalating in recent months, following the artist’s Vanity Fair coverage commission. Another artist on the rise, British-Nigerian painter Joy Labinjo’s Visiting Great Grandma sold at Phillips to benefit the Cuperior Residency in Berlin was the second most dynamic lot, achieving a hammer ratio of 15. The third lot bid up most past its estimate by Dallas-based artist Jammie Holmes also sold at Phillips for $94,500 more than 15 times the low estimate. Holmes has gained recent recognition for his arial demonstration flying banners over five U.S. cities featuring George Floyd’s last words.
* This analysis uses data from 11 modern and contemporary art New York day and evening sales at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips from October 6th-December 8th, 2020 and includes only items of fine art.