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In May and November each year, New York becomes the stage for the auction market’s biggest act; the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales. These are by far the biggest sales of the year; the two seasons combined can go on to represent about a third of the annual turnover for the major auction houses. When the global art market hit its peak in May 2015, these sales made well over $2.5 billion in a week – a staggering total.

An auction can be a goldmine for market information with estimates, bidding and prices all becoming very publicly available and providing insight into market trends, the health of certain sectors, and the appetite for works by certain artists. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the size and importance of the New York sales result in them attracting the most attention, from collectors, the industry, the media and the wider public. The appearance of the most valuable and celebrated works of art often make these the most prominent weeks in the media too, generating headlines for the $100 million masterpieces that sell for record prices, and a continual commentary on what the results might mean when considered in the context of the general economy. A big week of sales in New York can send a very loud and positive message to potential clients, and to the public around the world, that the art market is in rude health. On the other hand, a major work of art failing to sell could cause panic within the ranks. 

As a result of the high stakes, these auctions have evolved over the past few years into what are essentially carefully choreographed displays of expensive art changing hands. In the months before the auctions, there is fierce competition between the houses to consign the most valuable works available on the market and build the best sale, which can often present amazing opportunities for vendors, but can also push estimates higher. It can also lead to sales with a large proportion of guaranteed works, where the auction house assures the vendor an agreed price, whatever the result at auction. That risk can then be passed onto a third party, who can effectively buy a work privately before the auction and, if they are outbid at the sale, can be rewarded with a share of the upside. In these high-stakes auctions, there are more methods than ever  to guarantee success. 

Looking at the headline results of the sales this week, one would be inclined to celebrate a market in rude health; the three Post-War and Contemporary Art evening auctions (at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips) offered 158 works of art, and sold all but five: a 97% sell through rate across the houses. Christie’s sold over $400 million in what appears to have been a potentially profitable evening. Sotheby’s sold a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat to a Japanese collector for a staggering $110.5 million – a record for any work by an American artist, and a headline-generator around the world. Phillips auction was 100% sold and recorded a record price for Peter Doig, making him the most valuable living British artist at auction. The auctions throughout the week totalled about $1.5 billion – a steady increase on the sales this time last year, and those in November 2016.  But on the flip side, the totals are over $1 billion less than the high point two years ago. The Impressionist and Modern art evening sales saw big prices for the most modern works, but had overall sold percentages nearer 75%. At the Post-War and Contemporary evening sales, more than half the lots at Phillips were guaranteed, as well as over half the value of the auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Those auctions at Christie’s and Phillips were rather dull, despite apparent success on paper. And Phillips had withdrawn three works just before the start of their auction, including a Richter with an estimate of $15 to 20 million, presumably through a lack of interest. Christie’s also withdrew a big lot at the last minute with a Willem de Kooning estimated at $20 to 25 million, and Sotheby’s did the same at their Impressionist and Modern Evening sale on Tuesday, withdrawing an Egon Schiele painting estimated at $30 million to $40 million. Who knows – these are works which had they unsold, could have been the sneeze before a cold. 

The headlines might focus on the top end and the evening sales, where the stakes for success are so high and the mechanisms to achieve it increasingly complex, but for a more telling test, it’s better to look at more affordable areas of the market. Here we were encouraged by the level of activity and results; Sotheby’s had a less valuable evening sale than Christie’s, but a greater number of lots in the $1 million to $5 million, where we saw moments of real activity and excitement. Bonham’s, who are rarely mentioned during these weeks, continued their impressive form of date with a Contemporary sale that offered few works over $1 million but saw works with sensible estimates return notable results. The day sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips all returned reassuringly good results, at a level with a far larger audience much more representative of the general market. Perhaps the most telling result was one of the last of the week, as Sotheby’s sold 111 unique ceramics and works on paper by Pablo Picasso. Offered from the collection of his granddaughter, Marina Picasso, and presented with temptingly low estimates (from $5,000 to $120,000), every object sold for a total of $10.3 million, more than doubling expectations and reminding us of the excitement at auction when the art is great and the price is right.


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