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Buyers Pull Back at London Contemporary Sales

Overall sales volume dropped and buy-in rates spiked precipitously at this year’s October ­auctions of contemporary art in London, which were timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair.

NEW YORK—Overall sales volume dropped and buy-in rates spiked precipitously at this year’s October ­auctions of contemporary art in London, which were timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair. Many observers saw these trends as the first concrete signs that the art market is beginning to cool after years of exponential growth. Others suggest that, despite more-cautious buying and greater selectivity on the part of many art collectors, demand for contemporary art is still healthy. The auction houses were able to persuade consignors to lower their expectations, as was clearly evident in the number of top lots that sold for prices well below their published low estimates, even with the buyer’s premium.

“The material wasn’t great,” Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries, New York, told ARTnewsletter. In an environment such as this, he said, “the first thing that suffers is material that is not great.” He added, “The fact that quite a lot of it sold on the reserve or that there was only one bidder­ is not unexpected, but the fact is, money was exchanged. People still have faith not only in the market, but in the estimates to some degree.”

While some dealers at the six-year-old Frieze fair (held Oct. 16–19 in Regent’s Park) reported weak sales, the organizers and other exhibitors insisted that overall results were better than expected. Codirectors Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover said in a statement following the fair: “We were aware there was concern about sales. We have been heartened by the extent of positive reports from the U.S., European, Latin American, as well as U.K. galleries.”

Including day sales and auctions of Italian art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s after the contemporary sales, the three houses realized £99.9 million ($172.8 million), down from the record £174 million ($353 million) total of last fall.

Sotheby’s evening sale on Oct. 17 brought in £22 million ($38.1 million), short of the presale estimate of £30.6 million and down from the £34.9 million ($70.7 million) total of last year’s evening sale (ANL, 10/30/07). Christie’s evening sale on Oct. 18 also missed the mark, bringing in just under £32 million ($55.3 million), significantly lower than its presale estimate of £57.8 million and down from the £39.8 million ($80.6 million) achieved at last year’s sale.

The biggest shortfall was at Phillips, de Pury & Company on Oct. 18, where the £5 million ($8.7 million) evening sale total was less than a third of the £18.6 million low estimate, and 32, or nearly half, of the 70 lots on offer failed to sell.

Phillips spokesperson Ariel Childs told ARTnewsletter that the house has “almost entirely eliminated guarantees.” Furthermore, she noted, Phillips officials found in this year’s sale “that a number of vendors did not wish to revise their price expectations downwards, preferring to hold on to their works rather than selling them for less.”

Findlay stressed that the October Frieze-related sales are a relatively new addition to the auction calendar, and “basically something that was a creation of a boom market.” While sale volume was notably lower, it nonetheless represents “millions of dollars that, a few years ago, the auction houses weren’t getting, whether it was in the market or not. Usually what happens at this point in the cycle is that the top of the mountain gets cut off, but you don’t go back to zero.”

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