ARTnewsletter Archive

Auctioneers Adapt to ‘New Market’ at Contemporary Sales

February’s auctions of contemporary art at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company, including the part-two day sales, generated a combined total of £42.8 million ($57.9 million) against an overall estimate of £48.7 million/£66.1 million.

LONDON—February’s auctions of contemporary art at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company, including the part-two day sales, generated a combined total of £42.8 million ($57.9 million) against an overall estimate of £48.7 million/£66.1 million. A number of comparisons show the new state of the contemporary-art market: First, the total shows how the market has shrunk since last February, when the sales made £249.7 million (about $495 million); this decline, though, is in part a result of the lower number of lots offered—462 this year versus 1,064 last year.

The second comparison is with the sales of 2004, the last time the contemporary auctions achieved totals similar to this year’s. As this was before Phillips began selling in London, the comparative totals for Sotheby’s and Christie’s were £28.7 million ($51.7 million) in June 2004 and £54 million ($100 million) in February 2005, though there were more lots offered then, so the average price was lower than now.

The third comparison to be made is with the New York sales of last November, when nearly 40 percent of the lots on offer went unsold. It is a measure of how quickly auctioneers have adapted to the new market circumstances that the average buy-in rate this February was just 20 percent.

Demand Slows During Two-Week Series

The momentum of Sotheby’s highly successful, if pared down, sales of contemporary art on Feb. 5–6 (ANL, 2/17/09) appeared to have dissipated by the time Christie’s held its first contemporary-art sale of the year on Feb. 11. Of the 29 lots, estimated at £14.5 million/20.95 million ($21 million/29 million), 23 were sold, but many of the higher-valued lots failed, bringing the total to just £8.4 million ($12.1 million) with a sold-by-value rate of just 51 percent.

The greatest disappointment was Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue VI, 1954, which had been owned by Norwich Union, now a subsidiary of the Aviva insurance and pensions conglomerate, since the 1970s. Estimated at £4 million/6 million, the painting did not raise a bid. Not far behind was Mark Rothko’s acrylic-on-paper Green, Blue, Green on Blue, 1968, which last sold in November 2007 at Christie’s in New York for $6.1 million, a record for a Rothko work on paper. Now it went unsold against an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million ($3.6 million/5.1 million).

Setting aside these failures, however, the auction otherwise achieved a respectable sale rate. Christie’s officials said that 91 percent of the lots that sold did so within or above estimates, but that percentage is based on prices with the buyer’s premium. At the hammer prices, 16 of the 25 sold lots, or 64 percent, went within or above estimates.

Among the works that sold for hammer prices below their estimates were two top lots by Jeff Koons. Monkeys (Ladder), 2003, consigned by U.S. collector Stavros Merjos (estimate: £1.4 million/2 million), sold to Stefan Ratibor of the Gagosian Gallery for a premium-inclusive £1.38 million ($1.99 million), far less than the $4million paid for the comparable painting Cheeky, 2000, at Sotheby’s in New York last November. And the stainless steel Jim Beam–Log Car, 1986, fetched £445,250 ($641,160) with premium (estimate: £400,000/600,000). Other contemporary works that sold below estimate were Ron Arad’s steel “Big Easy Mixed” armchair, designed in 1988 and executed in 2003, which fetched £43,250 ($62,280) with premium (estimate: £40,000/60,000), and Rudolf Stingel’s canvas Untitled, 1993, which fetched £91,250 ($131,400) with premium (estimate: £80,000/120,000).

One lot that sold in line with expectations was Jenny Saville’s large early painting Juncture, 1994, which fetched £457,250 ($658,440) against an estimate of £300,000/400,000—that, however, was a big drop from the £900,000 price tag the painting carried when exhibited at The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, by King Street Fine Art (a private-sales subsidiary Christie’s formed especially for the fair) in 2007. Also selling within estimate—but for less than recent auction prices for comparable works—was Andreas Gursky’s Prada III, 1998, which had sold in May 2006 for $408,000 to art adviser Kim Heirston at Christie’s in New York, and which sold now for £271,250 ($390,600) against an estimate of £180,000/220,000. Roy Lichtenstein’s Painting: Silver Frame, 1983, which had last sold in November 2007 for $517,000 at Christie’s in New York, sold now for £241,250 ($347,400) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

Manolo Millares’s Cuadro 42, 1958, on the other hand, sold for more than recent comparable prices. Last sold at Sotheby’s in London in June 2006 for £209,600 ($386,000), now it brought £313,250 ($451,080) from a phone buyer against bidding from art adviser Edmund Peel (estimate: £200,000/300,000). And one work that made a good return over the long term was Sean Scully’s More Light, 1988, which had sold at Christie’s in London in December 1997 for £49,900 ($82,700) and sold now for £361,250 ($520,200) on an estimate of £300,000/400,000.

By lot, 66 percent of the buying came from Europe, 27 percent from the Americas, 4 percent from Asia and 4 percent from the U.K. Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s international cohead of the contemporary-art department, noted, however, that “the sale was so small it did not act as a perfect barometer for the rest of the market.”

The other major casualties of the evening sale included two works by Bridget Riley—the pale Aurulum, 1977, estimated at £400,000/600,000 ($580,000/870,000), and the later Code of Man­ners, 1988, estimated at £300,000/400,000 ($430,000/580,000)—as well as Robert Indiana’s sculpture RED LOVE, conceived in 1966 and executed in 2000, estimated at £400,000/600,000 ($580,000/670,000), and Untitled (Cowboy), 2001, one of Richard Prince’s appropriations of Marlboro cigarette advertisements, which had been estimated to sell for £240,000/280,000 ($350,000/400,000).

Brighter Picture at Contemporary Day Sale

A rosier outlook emerged the following day, however, when the lower end of the market performed slightly better than the upper end. As at Sotheby’s, where the part-two day sale realized an above-estimate total compared with the ­within-estimate total of the evening sale, Christie’s day session performed better than the evening. The 88-lot auction took in a total of £3.45 million with premium, just missing the low estimate (without premium) of £3.5 million ($5.1 million). Of the 68 lots that sold, 47 went at hammer prices within or above estimate, and the auction achieved a much higher sold-by-value rate of 77 percent. Among the stronger prices were the £94,850 ($136,205) paid by the Timothy Taylor Gallery for Eduardo Chillida’s Composition, 1962 (estimate: £40,000/60,000), and the record £73,250 ($105,187) paid for Julian Opie’s Woman taking off summer dress in two stages I, 2003 (estimate: £30,000/40,000). New York dealer Alberto Mugrabi snagged Prince’s Untitled (Publicity), 2004, a photograph of Pamela Anderson with a check signed by the actress, for £27,500 ($39,490) on a £15,000/20,000 estimate, and Albert Oehlen’s Gerüstbau (Scaffholding), 2000, consigned by U.K. collector Frank Cohen, sold for £97,250 ($139,651) on an estimate of £80,000/120,000.

London dealer Helly Nahmad barely managed to recoup the £71,700 ($130,000) he paid for Damien Hirst’s small medicine cabinet Oy, 1997, in June 2004; it sold now for £70,850 ($101,740) on an estimate of £70,000/90,000. Nahmad will hold on to Mona Hatoum’s Jardin Public, 1993, which he bought for £20,700 ($32,700) in June 1999 at Sotheby’s in London, and which went unsold now against an £18,000/22,000 estimate. Peter Doig’s Figures in a Wood, 1996, which had sold for £96,000 ($191,000) in June 2007 at Sotheby’s in London, followed this downward trend in prices, fetching £73,250 ($105,187) on an estimate of £70,000/90,000.

Commenting on the relative strength of the lower end of the market, Christie’s international cohead Brett Gorvy said, “There are still a lot of buyers in this market, but less above, say, $500,000. The billionaire buyers have mostly gone, and there seems to be an easier flow of money in the lower range, where there is more choice.”