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Spring Auctions Signal a Sea Change in the Market

Auction records tumbled almost as fast as they were set in the two-week season of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, de Pury & Company in New York from May 8-18. The auctions took $1.49 billion altogether, up sharply from $894.5 million a year-ago May and an increase over the

NEW YORK—Auction records tumbled almost as fast as they were set in the two-week season of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, de Pury & Company in New York from May 8-18. The auctions took $1.49 billion altogether, up sharply from $894.5 million a year-ago May and an increase over the record $1.38 billion taken last fall (ANL, 11/28/06). The total—the highest ever—was even more remarkable in a season that lacked a blockbuster private collection or estate sale, experts said.

Christie’s took the overall lead in the two-week period with sales of $760.2 million, while Sotheby’s made $681.8 million. Sotheby’s led the Impressionist sector with a total of $337.2 million; Christie’s earned $282.4 million. Christie’s evening and day contemporary sales realized $477.7 million altogether; Sotheby’s, $344.6 million. Phillips, which has become known for selling cutting-edge contemporary art, much of it created within the last decade or two, tallied $48.3 million in two sales of contemporary art on May 17-18.

Prices for postwar and contemporary art have escalated rapidly in recent seasons; this time the overall volume of these sales easily eclipsed the totals for Impressionist and modern art. Contemporary sales, including those at Phillips, fetched $870.6 million, compared with $619.7 million for all sales of Impressionist and modern art. In the course of the evening contemporary sales, 55 records were set. During Impressionist and modern evening sales, eight records emerged.

“By no means did the contemporary sales totals come as a surprise,” Roland Augustine, president of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and codirector of the Luhring Augustine Gallery, Chelsea, told ARTnewsletter. “The contemporary market has been swelling for quite some time now—there is extraordinary interest. We’re constantly hearing about the depth in the market and the buoyancy resulting from the cash stream out of China, Russia, India and Europe.”

The highest price for any Impressionist work was the $25.5 million given at Sotheby’s for a Paul Cézanne watercolor, Still Life with Green Melon, 1902-06. The top three works at Christie’s Impressionist sale—by Alberto Giacometti, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso—each sold for $18.5 million.

However, the top postwar and contemporary artworks soared to exponentially higher levels, including Mark Rothko’s 1950 painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), which fetched $72.8 million at Sotheby’s; and, the following evening, a 1963 Andy Warhol silkscreen, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), which tore past its $25/35 million estimate to take $71.7 million at Christie’s.

“There is a sea change in taste” that is more pronounced than before, Barbara Guggenheim, a partner at the art-advisory firm of Guggenheim Asher Associates, New York and Los Angeles, told ARTnewsletter. “Our parents’ generation, if they had money, opted for Impressionist paintings. Younger collectors nowadays veer toward postwar works.”

Guggenheim, noting that the Impressionist field drew a mix of Europeans, including Russian buyers, says demand from U.S. buyers was more noticeable in the contemporary sector: “I thought a lot of [both Impressionist and modern] works brought great prices. There is such a dearth of material—people are happy to get whatever they can.”

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