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London Sales Underscore Art-Market Resilience

During the sales of Postwar and contemporary art held Feb. 10–13, all three major auction houses experienced a strong upturn in business from the auctions of a year ago.

LONDON—During the sales of Postwar and contemporary art held Feb. 10–13, all three major auction houses experienced a strong upturn in business from the auctions of a year ago. Sotheby’s led the contemporary series with an evening sale on Feb. 10 that brought in £54.1million ($84.7million), which was up more than 200 percent from last February’s £17.9million ($25.9million) evening sale. Christie’s evening sale on Feb. 11 followed up with a total that leaped from £8.4million ($12.1million) last year to £39.1million ($61.2million). Phillips de Pury & Company’s evening sale on Feb. 12 yielded a more modest rebound from last year, rising from £4.2million ($6.1million) to £6.1million ($9.6million). Lower-value day sales at all three houses added another £25million ($39.2million) to the series total, versus £12.4million ($17.9million) last year, bringing the overall contemporary total to £124.3 million ($194.6million), almost three times the £42.8million ($57.9million) total of a year ago. This increase was helped by the number of lots on offer, which rose from 462 last year to 700 this year, and an improved average sell-through rate of 85 percent for this year’s six contemporary sales.

Experts at all three houses attributed the increase in consignments and the healthy results in part to the positive results achieved in New York last November, which gave more consignors the confidence to sell, and in part to the mix of material this year, which was very European in taste, with a preponderance of blue-chip Postwar art. The offerings were noticeably light on works by such art-boom stars as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince and even Andy Warhol.

The best-selling artists of the week were Yves Klein, with nine works selling for a total of £14million ($21.8million), and Lucio Fontana, with 14 works selling for a total of £11million ($17million). The two artists therefore accounted for roughly 17.5 percent of the overall series total.

Speaking with reporters afterward about the undeniable upswing that had taken place with these sales, Francis Outred, Christie’s new head of contemporary art in Europe, said the next challenge for the house would be to manage seller expectations and keep estimates from skyrocketing again. Guarantees, however, have not been ruled out for the future, he said.

Impressionist/Modern Volumes Rebound, Too

Sotheby’s and Christie’s brought in a total of £259million ($409million) for their part-one and part-two sales of Impressionist and modern art held in London Feb. 2–4. The total was £100million ($158million) more than the overall low estimate and double the £126.3million ($183million) total of last year, and not far short of the £271million ($515million) of February 2008, before the economic crisis toppled the art market. With the number of lots on offer reduced since then, the average price per lot sold increased from £405,000 ($769,500) two years ago to £542,000 ($856,360) in this February’s series.

Obviously such calculations are affected—even skewed—by the presence at Sotheby’s of three lots with eight-figure estimates, by Alberto Giacometti, Egon Schiele and Paul Cézanne, that between them brought in £105.8million ($166million). But with a sell-through rate of 80 percent by lot, it was clear that both houses had got their sales mix and estimates right.

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