ARTnewsletter Archive

$421M Spring Sales Show Extent of Downturn

The overall total for the spring auctions of Postwar and contemporary and Impressionist and modern art held May 5–15 at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company in New York was $421.2 million, a sharp drop from the $803.3 million of last fall (ANL, 11/25/08) and an even sharper drop from the $1.6 billion

NEW YORK—The overall total for the spring auctions of Postwar and contemporary and Impressionist and modern art held May 5–15 at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company in New York was $421.2 million, a sharp drop from the $803.3 million of last fall (ANL, 11/25/08) and an even sharper drop from the $1.6 billion of last year’s spring sales (ANL, 5/27/08). It was the lowest total in seven years, and a clear sign that the economic crisis continues to weigh heavily on the art market.

Auction house specialists said they had to work much harder this season to persuade consignors to part with works while managing expectations for estimates. Guarantees—undisclosed sums promised to consignors regardless of how their lots perform at auction—were all but nonexistent in this round of sales, with a few exceptions for major works. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s lost millions in recent seasons on guarantees they extended to win consignments only to have the downturn in the economy drastically reduce demand. In its third-quarter earnings report last November, Sotheby’s—the only major house that is publicly traded and thus required to file detailed financial results—recorded a loss of $53.2 million on guarantees to consignors, most of it for property that was to be sold in the fourth quarter of last year. In June 2008, Phillips said it was entering into the fall season having made a decision, “taking into account the pending economic downturn,” to eliminate guarantees. In a statement, Phillips officials said that, despite a high number of unsold lots last fall, “no debt has been incurred to the company.”

This season, by keeping estimates at more reasonable—and in many cases considerably lower—levels than in recent years, paring back the number of offerings and focusing on top-quality, fresh-to-the-market works, the auction houses often succeeded in generating demand and enthusiasm among collectors and dealers alike. Sell-through rates by lot and by value were generally strong, and, after the sales, auction executives were clearly relieved.

“The art market is alive and well,” Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, said following the house’s evening contemporary sale on May 12. “We’re clearly pleased. The results are incredibly solid.” Contrasting the more sober atmosphere of these sales with that of two years ago, Meyer said, “Clearly you didn’t see an $86 million [Francis] Bacon or a $72 million [Mark] Rothko” (ANL, 5/27/08). The highest price at Sotheby’s evening sale was $5.5 million, paid for Jeff Koons’s Baroque Egg with Bow (Tur­quoise/Magenta), 1994–2008, one of five uniquely colored versions of a stainless steel sculpture of a giant foil-wrapped Easter egg. The work, which missed its $6 million/8 million estimate, was sold to dealer Larry Gagosian, although it wasn’t clear to observers whether he was buying on behalf of a client or for inventory.

The highest price of the Impressionist and modern series was $14.6 million, paid at Christie’s evening sale for Pablo Picasso’s Mousquetaire à la pipe, 1968, which was consigned by Nine West co-founder and former Bernard Madoff investor Jerome Fisher. Following the Christie’s auction, Marc Porter, president, Christie’s Americas, said that “collectors remain hungry for ­high-quality works that are reasonably estimated.”

Another Picasso painting, a portrait of the artist’s daughter Maya, had been consigned to Sotheby’s by William Achenbaum, chairman of the New York-based Gansevoort Hotel Group and also a former Madoff investor, but the work went unsold. Observers said the failure was due in part to an overly aggressive estimate of $16 million/24 million.

The top-selling lot of the contemporary series, also at Christie’s, was David Hock­ney’s diptych Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966–67, a portrait of the late arts patron Betty Freeman from her collection, which brought in a record $7.9 million (estimate: $6 million/10 million).

Emphasis on Tried-and-True Names

Despite the emphasis on more-traditional and blue-chip works this season, sales of contemporary art surpassed those of Impressionist and modern. Evening and day contemporary sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips totaled $213.3 million, whereas sales of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s totaled $207.9 million (Phillips does not hold sales of Impressionist and modern art).

Two years ago, when the contemporary-art market was at its peak, the disparity was even greater, with contemporary sales, including Phillips, taking in $870.6 million, $251 million more than the $619.7 million total for sales of Impressionist and modern art (ANL, 5/29/07).

Christie’s led the spring season with a total of $248.9 million, followed by Sotheby’s, with $160 million. Phillips took in $12.3 million in its evening and day contemporary sales May 14–15.

“Demand was there,” Meyer said. “Buyers responded to the recalibrated market. The participation of international bidders was very strong. Estimates were not met with resistance but with positivity.”

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