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Following a period of experimentation with new sale formats and technological upgrades, the top auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips—have now found their footing in a post-pandemic era. In an attempt to make up for the lost revenue of the first months of the pandemic and the constrained Summer sales, the houses staged a series of smaller cross-category sales from October to December 2020. Still, during those smaller sales the portion held in New York and London lagged behind buying volume in Hong Kong by a noticeable margin, a shift in the usual dynamic that plays out across global sale centers.
In response, the three houses invested even deeper in creating thematic cross-category auctions combining trophy lots from old masters to the ultra-contemporary. The London- and Paris-based sales staged between March and April this year saw fewer ultra-high value works (+$40 million.) This despite evidence that demand for top tier works has remained undiminished throughout the pandemic. Even at a lower price point, the top lots of the London and Paris evening auctions were works made by art historical giants like Jean Michael Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh.
The collective total for the New York day and evening modern and contemporary art sales was $611 million. The evening sales grossed $484 million across 177 sold lots. With 204 lots offered, the sell-through rate was a strong 87 percent, an uptick from the fall’s comparatively lower 84 percent but still below the highly managed 90+ percent rates seen in recent years.
In the evening sales, the overall hammer price of $407 million was solidly above the $305.6 million aggregate low estimate. The result marks a hammer ratio, a rough measure of the overall market demand, of 1.33. (Typically, an overall hammer ratio over 1.10, indicates a relatively strong demand.) Below 1.00 the hammer ratio signals market weakness. The figure indicates a higher depth of bidding than seen in the fall, suggesting that demand among top buyers saw an uptick between seasons.
As each of the three top auction houses recover from a dip in overall sales in the last year, ranging from 16 to 25 percent, they are bringing to market a mix of in-demand emerging names and fresh examples by leading modern artists. Blue-chip male artists remain the leaders in market share, driven in part by major consignments of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso and David Hockney by mega-collectors like Joseph Hackmey, Aaron Frenkel and Aby Rosen.
The modern and contemporary day and mid-season sales brought in $126.7 million across 920 lots sold, with a sell-through rate of 82%. The day and mid-season sales realized a hammer total of $101.7 million, against a pre-sale low estimate of $70.4 million. That’s a hammer ratio of 1.44, signaling a depth of bidding in the low to mid-tier market. Demand was clearly above seller’s expectations. A closer look at the figures shows that more works went unsold than sold for prices below the low estimate (this was also apparent in the fall and summer sale figures.) So many works failing to find buyers typically indicates a less competitive market. Here, with strong bidding for sold works, it may indicate that some consignors were unwilling to capitulate to the market in determining the value of their works. With so much liquidity in the global economy, sellers could stick to their convictions and hope to sell for their price at a later date. It is unclear if these failed works were victims of slowing demand or an ongoing consequence of disruption in the global market caused by the pandemic.
Jean Michel Basquiat achieved the highest market share across the modern and contemporary categories with a total turnover of $55.6 million. Picasso came in second with a total turnover of $51.9 million. As illustrated in the graph above, the average price of Basquiat’s 4 sold lots is $13.9 million. Picasso’s on the other hand is a fraction of that at $1.1 million, across 45 lots sold. One unexpected result in the London sales this season was Banksy’s ranking as the third highest grossing artist in the March to April auctions, bringing in $33.9 million across 11 lots. van Gogh was the only artist to make it in the 20 highest grossing brands with the sale of just one lot, a rare landscape of Montemarte from 1890 that came to market after more than a century in private hands that was purchased by the family of London-based billionaire David Reuben. The fifth highest ranking artist by market share was Edvard Munch. Munch’s total turnover was generated by the sale of two works from the storied Olsen collection at Sotheby’s for $28.2 million. Overall, the artists that saw the highest number of individual works traded across the sales were Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Bernard Buffett, Banksy and Francis Picabia.
Basquiat, Picasso Bansky Lead by Market Share
A closer look at the market share figures shows a higher concentration of the market share value resides with modern artists. Notably, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha had market shares ranging between 2.24-.66 percent here, a drop from last season’s overall market share percentages around 5-7 percent. The focus on women artists and artists of color seen in previous seasons was not present in the London and Paris market-share results. Only two non-white artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Matthew Wong were in the top 30 market-share ranking. There were no women artists. Another shift apparent this season from last fall, was the lack of major deaccessions from museums and corporate collections.
Basquiat’s Warrior (1982), sold during a single lot London-Hong Kong auction at Christie’s was the most expensive lot at $41.7 million. Of the 30 top works, 12 hammered above their high estimates, including the Van Gogh, a Bansky and a Picasso; 12 hammered within their estimates and 6 hammered below their low estimate. These hammer results show that bidders competed actively for the most expensive lots, which typically have only a few potential buyers registered. This signals a high level of buyer demand at the top end of the market, where bidding is often suppressed due to third party guarantees.
The ten highest selling lots together brought in $189.4 million, accounting for a total of 39% of the combined evening sale volume. Two works by Basquiat made up 28 percent of the top ten volume, generating $54.2 million. Second to Basquiat’s $41.7 million Warrior was Banksy’s Game Changer, a work sold for charity going to pandemic relief. It sold for $23 million, more than six times its estimate of $3.45 million.
Blue-chip modernists dominated this season’s London and Paris sales. Among the top sellers was Edvard Munch’s Summer Day or Embrace on the Beach (The Linde Frieze) from the storied Olsen family collection, which made $22.2 million. In February 2006, a member of the Olsen family sold it at Sotheby’s for £6.2 million ($10.8 million), tripling its estimate of £2 million ($3.5 million). Works by Picasso dominated the top end of the evening sale volume, with three paintings among the top ten sellers bringing in $46.3 million, or 24 percent of the top ten total.
Rare Names and Emerging Artists Outperform
Among the works with the most competitive bidding were by artists like Amoako Boafo and Matthew Wong, who have each seen escalating prices since their auction debuts last year at Phillips and Sotheby’s. Boafo’s Self-Portrait (2016) was the most dynamic lot of the evening sales. It achieved a hammer ratio of 7.33. Among the other artists with the highest hammer ratios in the evening sale were Frank Dobson, Banksy, Lina Iris Viktor and Jean Fautrier. A closer look at the graph above shows that the works in the evening sales which saw the highest level of bidding overall were the works with a low estimate below $1 million. Emerging artists like Claire Tabouret, Joy Labinjo, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lina Iris Viktor, whose estimates were below $100,000, drew the most attention among bidders this season. New records were achieved by British artists Frank Dobson and Iranian modernist Bahman Mohasses.
Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha Top Mid-Season & Day Sales
In the mid-season and day sales, a work by Keith Haring was the highest priced lot. Second to Haring was Ed Ruscha’s California Grape Skins (2009), which sold in Sotheby’s contemporary curated sale, for $2.84 million with buyer’s premium. Two paintings by the late Canadian artist Matthew Wong were among the top ten works sold in the day sales. Wong’s market remains strong following his auction debut at Sotheby’s in June last year and a period of escalating prices. Overall, ten works by Wong traded during the March-April evening and day sales generating a hammer total of $8.7 million ($10.7 million), surpassing the collective low estimate of $2.8 million.
A closer look at the the lots that greatly exceed their estimates shows two stories. On the one hand, there is clearly strong competition for works, held privately for many decades, that are by 20th century artists with deep markets. On the other hand, works by emerging names—or long under-recognized artists now receiving new attention—are attracting a high volume of bidders. The index for the mid-season and day sale lot performance below shows surrealist Man Ray’s Solitaire, a bronze sculpture of two outstretched hands cast in 1971, achieved the highest hammer ratio across all auctions in the March-April series. The Man Ray market, still plagued by issues around forgery and clear title, was the subject of controversy this March when the artist’s Trust called for Christie’s to halt the sale of a trove of works from the collection of his former assistant, Lucien Triellard. That sale, which brought in around $7 million, and doubled expectations.
Elsewhere in the mid-season and day sales women artists like Sonia Gomes, Mickalene Thomas, Ivy Haldeman and Chakaia Booker. Recently the subject of a show at Los Angeles’ François Ghebaly, Haldeman’s works depicting anthropomorphized hot dogs have gained attention on the primary market. Brazilian contemporary artist Sonia Gomes, who uses textiles in her works has also achieved high hammer ratios in the past two seasons, following her recently being added to Pace’s formidable roster. Number three on the highest hammer ratio list is a work by Chakaia Booker, an artist in her late 60s known for distinctive large-scale sculpture. She is currently the subject of a survey exhibition “Chakaia Booker: The Observance,” which runs through the end of October at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Eager Buyers Spur Air of Optimism
Guarantees among top lots also anchored a solid performance in the evening sales overall. Of the 177 lots offered by the three major auction houses in their modern and contemporary evening sales in London and Paris this Spring, 33 were guaranteed. Based on the works’ low estimates, the amount guaranteed was $130.8 million out of a collective total $305 million. Ultimately, those works brought in $151.6 million on the hammer, or 37 percent of the hammer total across the evening sales.
For auction houses, arranging a guarantee to secure consignments is often a lucrative move. “There are a lot of eager bidders out there,” said Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s New York head of the Impressionist and modern, in an interview with ARTnews in March. “The past year has been more an issue of supply than demand,” said Fusco. Now, Fusco added, there is an air of optimism among clients as the pandemic inches closer to an end with the vaccine roll-out across the U.S. and Europe.
In this market dynamic, when demand exceeds supply, competition among bidders has typically been at its highest for the top lots, an imbalance that has traditionally increased the auction houses’ push for guarantees, according to Adam Chinn in a 2018 analysis published on Sotheby’s Art Agency Partners. Yet, in the March and April evening sales, many of the best performing lots relative to their low estimates, were not those guaranteed or secured with an irrevocable bid. The only guaranteed evening sale lot to achieve a hammer ratio in the top ten (above 3.75) was Banky’s Game Changer. The two common threads among works that saw the highest competition among bidders were: emerging names like Amoafo Boafo, Claire Tabouret and Joy Labinjo for Contemporary art and works that that had come to the market after decades in private hands, in the Modern market. Examples of long-held works were Frank Dobson’s female nude sculpture from the early 20th century and examples by Arshile Gorky and Jean Fautrier that had been off the market since the 1950s.