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London Summer Auctions: Some Solid Prices But Overall Sale Volume Plummets

In spite of the substantial decline in sales totals realized at the auctions of Impressionist and modern art June 23–25, the market emerged looking solid.

LONDON—In spite of the substantial decline in sales totals realized at the auctions of Impressionist and modern art June 23–25, the market emerged looking solid. Overall sales figures for Sotheby’s and Christie’s part-one and part-two sales fell by two-thirds, to £96million ($158million) from £297.9million ($586.2million) last year. The number of lots in the sales was down by more than one-half, to 430 from 930 last June. Perhaps the most telling figure is the number of higher-value lots, which was down even further: Last summer, Sotheby’s and Christie’s part-one auctions racked up a combined total of 89 lots that sold for $1million or more. This summer they could muster only 22—a 75 percent drop. The effect on the average price for the whole series was such that it fell to £140,000 ($230,800) this year from £464,000 ($913,000) last summer. That does not mean prices for individual works are down by that much, however—the few lots with comparable examples from 2008 showed no decline in prices, and going back further, showed mostly gains. The main difficulty was in finding higher-value lots to sell.

“Now that auctioneers aren’t offering guarantees, people are trying to negotiate private sales,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s vice chairman of Impressionist and modern art. “They’re saying, ‘This is what I want. If you can’t get it, I’d rather not sell.’”

Last June, the guaranteed lots in Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening sales had a combined low estimate of £56million ($110million). This year there was just one guaranteed lot, Pablo Picasso’s Homme à l’épée, 1969, at Sotheby’s, which had been given an irrevocable bid instead of a traditional guarantee. (Another Homme à l’épée, also 1969, was sold at Christie’s.) With an irrevocable bid, any risk to the auction house is eliminated because an outside party agrees in advance to place a specified bid. If the hammer price exceeds the irrevocable bid and the lot sells to another buyer, the third party shares in the difference.

Blue-chip Impressionist paintings were in short supply, and the sales were dominated by large, late paintings by Picasso, small sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and paintings of all periods by Joan Miró, which were all consistently sought after.

Buy-in rates, which were a healthy average 21 percent last February, held steady at 22 percent this June, versus 27 percent last summer, and the overall total of £96million ($158million) was comfortably within the combined £83million/116million estimate for the Impressionist and modern series.

U.S. buying fell slightly in the evening sales, to 20 percent from 25 percent last year. “The currency issue was less of a factor than in February,” said Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international head of Impression­ist and modern art, referring to the regained strength of the pound against the dollar.

Although Sotheby’s evening and day sales had a better overall sold-by-lot rate of 84.5 percent, compared with Christie’s 72 percent, the house’s series total of £46million ($75.9million) for 215 lots offered just trailed Christie’s total of £50million ($82.5million) for 235 lots offered.

“The sales sent out a strong message about late Picassos and Impressionists,” Seydoux said, referring to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales. “We’ll see more. There hasn’t been a good Impressionist picture unsold since 2005. They have all sold. We need this kind of evidence to promote confidence.”

As ARTnewsletter went to press, the London auctions of Postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company had brought in a total of £70million ($112million), roughly a quarter of the £262.2million ($522.4million) total of last year (ANL, 7/22/09). This brought the total for the entire London summer series to £166million ($265.6million), compared with the £550million ($1.1billion) of last year. A detailed report on the Postwar and contemporary sales will be published in the next issue of the ARTnewsletter.

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