ARTnewsletter Archive

Surge in Contemporary Art Propels $1.1B Sales

An up-and-down week of Postwar and contemporary art sales held in New York from May 9–13 saw the ups outweigh the downs as 1,035, or 85 percent, of the 1,282 lots offered sold for $718 million, comfortably within the $572 million/806 million estimate.

NEW YORK—An up-and-down week of Postwar and contemporary art sales held in New York from May 9–13 saw the ups outweigh the downs as 1,035, or 85 percent, of the 1,282 lots offered sold for $718 million, comfortably within the $572 million/806 million estimate. This was the fifth highest total on record, and a 21 percent increase over last May’s $592 million. It fell short, however, of last November’s $754 million, thus breaking the pattern of continuous growth from one season to the next that characterized the boom period from May 2005 to May 2008. A key feature of the sales was their aggressive estimates, or the inflated expectations of vendors; another was the return of the guarantee. At Sotheby’s, where only two lots had irrevocable bids, inflated estimates were met with repressed bidding, while at Christie’s, such estimates were covered by guarantees, mostly by third parties. The 13 guaranteed lots constituted 40 percent of the low estimate of Christie’s entire evening sale. At Phillips de Pury & Company, most of the top lots were also covered by guarantees.

Another feature of the sales was the high percentage of value represented by works of Andy Warhol. Last year, market analysts Art Tactic calculated that 17 percent of sales in the specialized contemporary art auctions were by Warhol. In the May 2011 sales, that percentage grew to 25 percent. Christie’s, which had the largest total—$367.4 million, as against Sotheby’s $242 million and $108 million for Phillips—also had by far the highest volume of Warhol sales. It had the lowest proportion of bought-in lots too—8 percent, as compared with Sotheby’s 14 percent and 24 percent for Phillips.

Comparing contemporary with Impressionist and modern, the swing to contemporary in terms of volume is marked, emphasizing the less predictable levels of supply that now govern the Impressionist and modern markets. Comparing joint figures achieved by Sotheby’s and Christie’s from May 2009 to May 2010 inclusive, Impressionist and modern were on level pegging with contemporary. Last November, a gap of $75 million appeared in favor of contemporary, and grew in May to $210 million—equivalent to the gap that had existed at the market’s peak in May 2008.

After two weeks of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions, the three houses achieved a cumulative total of $1.2 billion, down a bit from the $1.3 billion achieved last fall and roughly even with the total recorded last spring. Impressionist and modern sales accounted for $398 million, a considerable drop from recent seasons, for example, last spring’s $593 million total (ANL, 6/1/10). Contemporary art accounted for $718.5 million of the total. Christie’s was the leader, posting $557 million in all, with Sotheby’s accounting for $451.9 million and Phillips posting $108.14 million.

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