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Scaled-Back London Sales Yield Uneven Results

Earlier this month, Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their first major series of auctions of Impressionist and modern art in London since last fall’s rough ride in New York (ANL, 11/25/08).

LONDON—Earlier this month, Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their first major series of auctions of Impressionist and modern art in London since last fall’s rough ride in New York (ANL, 11/25/08). Both Sotheby’s Helena Newman, vice chairman, Impressionist and modern art worldwide, and Christie’s Jussi Pylkännen, chairman of Impressionist and modern art and president, Christie’s Europe, confirmed that business had not been as easy to get as in previous years, and the total number of lots in the five sales declined to 514 from 950 last February. The total low estimate for the series was also down, to £126 million from £224 million. Estimates had been reduced by as much as 30 percent, said Thomas Seydoux, director of Christie’s Impressionist and modern department, Paris, though estimates on some of the ­highest-valued lots, taken in at the end of last summer and before the fall sales in New York, remained unchanged.

The most important issue at stake was whether the sell-through rate could be kept high enough to maintain confidence in the market. The London market had the low value of its currency on its side—the pound had fallen by 30 percent against the dollar in the months leading up to the sale, and by 21 percent and 35 percent against the euro and yen respectively during 2008.

In total the Impressionist and modern evening and day sales realized £126.4 million ($182.4 million), just above the revised low estimate of £123.2 million after several lots were withdrawn, with Sotheby’s taking in £43.9 million ($63.4 million), and Christie’s realizing £82.5 million ($118.6 million).

Only Sotheby’s part-one evening sale failed to reach its low estimate. While the unsold rate, which averaged 21 percent, has rarely been bettered, the results of this year’s series were far below those of last February’s, which realized £271 million ($531 million) for 952 lots. The last time this London series took in less was in June 2005, when the total was £105.5 million ($192.4 million).

Seydoux commented, “We know where the market is now and how to move forward. But we should not be complacent. The art market is not recession-proof. Undoubtedly we were helped by the weakness of the pound.”

The contemporary art auction schedule was split over two weeks, with Sotheby’s holding its evening contemporary sale on Feb. 5. That auction earned £17.9 million ($25.8 million), and was followed by a day sale that realized £7.3 million ($10.6 million).

As ARTnewsletter went to press, Christie’s evening contemporary-art sale on Feb. 11 had realized £8.4 million ($12.1 million), far short of the low £14.5 million estimate, in large part because of the failure of its two star lots, paintings by Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko with a combined low estimate of £6.5 million. Phillips de Pury & Co.’s sale on Feb. 12 took £4.2 million ($6.1 million), below the £6.8 million low estimate. A full report on the contemporary sales will appear in the next issue of the ARTnewsletter.

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