NEW YORK—Sales of American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Nov. 28-29 rose to a combined total of $136.5 million—up $15.5 million, or 12 percent, from last November’s approximately $121 million take. Sotheby’s overall sales volume dipped, to $65.2 million from $82.5 million a year ago, while Christie’s rose considerably, to $71.3 million from $38.2 million last year. Christie’s said the sale was its highest-ever auction total for American paintings. Eric Widing, head of Christie’s American paintings division, called the result “a milestone for the department.”
As noted by several experts, reliance on the auction guarantee—a minimum price promised to consignors regardless of the auction’s outcome—contributed significantly to the spike in Christie’s sale volume. Of the more than 200 works on offer, Christie’s guaranteed about 90, including 40 works from the Samuel and Marion Lawrence collection, which carried overall estimates of roughly $5.7/8.6 million and realized $6.4 million, including premium. If the house took a considerable risk, it was one that paid off. Guaranteed property for the sale carried estimates ranging from approximately $29.9/45 million, and yielded about $34.3 million of the total.
Says New York art dealer Howard Godel, president of Godel & Co.: “There seemed to be a lot of competition” between the two auctioneers this time around. “Both houses did really well in view of the fact that there were some overaggressive estimates and guarantees.” On numerous works, he notes, “they took a big roll of the dice, but did well in the end.”
In comparison, Sotheby’s guaranteed just two of 196 lots on offer. With overall estimates of $6/9 million, the two works realized $6.7 million altogether. Godel suggests that the mix of strong prices and selective demand makes for an overall market that is “very healthy.” Pointing to the “relatively high buy-in rate”—about 25 percent at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s—he told ARTnewsletter, “People weren’t just throwing money at art in general. When you get that high a buy-in rate, it shows that people are well-advised and showing connoisseurship. Buyers may have paid crazy prices for certain things, but they also walked away from a lot of overpriced, mediocre material that had aggressive estimates.”