Sotheby’s announced today that trade in its private sales division reached a total of nearly $1 billion in 2019, a goal the firm had also achieved in 2018. Last year, the house saw significant growth in the private sale sector, reporting a 37 percent increase in results from 2017 to 2018. The composition of private sales remains skewed toward the top end of the market.
Sotheby’s reported that half of the $1 billion total in private sales came from more than 30 transactions in the price range of $5 million–$50 million, although most works sold privately are priced between $1 million and $5 million. Half of the total private sales results derived from contemporary art.
Closely following news that Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella Galleries had partnered to sell the $450 million postwar collection of Donald B. Marron, the announcement signaled Sotheby’s interest in highlighting its own ability to toggle between private sales and public auctions. David Schrader, Sotheby’s worldwide head of private sales, acknowledged the “dichotomy of dealer versus auction house,” but he argued that the narrative around the Marron sale does not “provide for a full picture”—noting that the firm is “increasingly investing in this arm of our business and offering expanded optionality to clients.”
Under Sotheby’s new private ownership there is increasing interest in expanding what Schrader described as “fixed price-point sales,” a term that includes everything from the private sales of fine art, jewelry, watches, and high-value collectibles to the retail sales of wine and other cultural property, as opposed to “variable price-point sales” that traditionally take place through Sotheby’s auctions. The house sees the immense power of its brand as an under-leveraged asset through which to access the much larger markets for lower-value but still quite costly luxury items.
The works of an array of artists made possible the private sales that Sotheby’s reported today, the top-selling of them by volume of sales in the past three years being Jonas Wood, Yayoi Kusama, George Condo, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, KAWS, and Alexander Calder. The top-selling artists by value were modern and postwar heavyweights Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, Fernand Léger, Gerhard Richter, and Joan Mitchell.
Notably, Yayoi Kusama was the house’s second-most-requested artist, behind Warhol. This is a reminder of Kusama’s ubiquity in both the contemporary art market and global institutional network. Her “Infinity Room” installations have been featured at a host of major museums around the globe including a 2018 exhibition at the Broad in Los Angeles, a show opening in May at Tate Modern in London, and another opening in April at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. While Kusama’s market impact is often not reflected in the contemporary day and evening public auctions, her brand maintains a strong hold on the undercurrent of the international art industry that appears to be challenging Warhol’s long-held monopoly.
Works by Old Masters, a market driven largely by scarcity and condition, was the next top-selling category outside of modern and contemporary. This makes sense: Old Masters collectors must be more measured in their purchasing strategy, as quality and provenance are critical to the appreciation of value, and private sale is a more feasible transactional method.
The top auction houses have pivoted attention to growth in private sales, as major blue-chip dealers have proved to be highly competitive as long-term advisers to top collectors with multimillion-dollar estates. The houses have historically remained competitive in securing large estate sales of private collections by arranging deals that keep the financial risk largely with the firm. Christie’s reported only a 7 percent increase in private sales in 2018; in an initiative to compete with Sotheby’s in this sector, the firm appointed Adrien Meyer, co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art, to serve concurrently as chairman of global private sales.
Sotheby’s has in the past several years seen a high return on its investment in expanding private sales and developing lower-value sale categories. Their 2019 results seem to register the firm’s focus on the middle market, as well as the impact of fewer ultra-high-value lots available in the contemporary category.