NEW YORK—Concerns about the impact of U.S. financial-market volatility and the recent subprime mortgage crisis on the fall art auctions were all but silenced as record after record fell and the overall sales volume raced to yet another high. Auctions of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art held from Nov. 6-16 at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, de Pury & Company fetched $1.75 billion—up $264 million, or about 18 percent, from the previous record total of $1.49 billion last spring. With each consecutive season, volumes have spiraled to ever-higher levels: In spring 2005, for instance, sales at all three houses took $598.4 million; in fall 2005, $765.3 million; and in spring 2006, $894.45 million.
As the auction houses headed into the latest round of sales, observers questioned whether this rate of growth and price appreciation were sustainable. The main focus fell on the contemporary sector, amid speculation that many of the younger, newly rich buyers—particularly the hedge fund investors who in recent years have helped power a surge in the contemporary market—might hold back on acquisitions or else pull out altogether.
On the contrary, the volume of postwar and contemporary art sales continued to rise at a stunning pace this time around and, continuing a recent trend, eclipsed the volume of Impressionist sales. Contemporary art sales accounted for $950.3 million of the combined total. In comparison, Impressionist and modern art sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s reached $804.5 million (Phillips does not hold sales of Impressionist art). In several cases, intense demand for the works of certain contemporary artists, such as Richard Prince, resulted in prices that doubled or tripled their previous levels.
Dominique Levy, co-owner of L&M Arts in Manhattan, expressed amazement at the overall volume, especially in the absence of a major single-owner sale or Impressionist masterpiece. In recent seasons, she told ARTnewsletter, “people really knew more or less before the sale how it would turn out, and there was a feeling of security, certainty and bullish enthusiasm.” But “for the first time in a while, dealers entered the saleroom with a lot of question marks.”
‘Some Prices Defy Logic’
Levy says she is “surprised to see how much hunger, how much desire, there is for cutting-edge contemporary works,” even as “some of those prices defy logic. A number of contemporary living artists are becoming more expensive than a phenomenal early-20th-century work.”
Commenting on the contemporary art scene, Paul Gray, co-owner of the Richard Gray Gallery, New York and Chicago, says, “A few things at the top with outrageous prices drag along the rest of the market. It’s completely a commodity in the sense that when two or three financial stocks are enjoying heady times, people look at other financial stocks and assume they are undervalued. This is happening in the art market.”
With the exception of a Sotheby’s evening Impressionist sale that fell short of its low estimate, weak spots were few and far between.
Levy suggests that within the Impressionist section “very clear tastes are emerging on the modern side,” evidenced by strong prices for artworks the likes of a Picasso sculpture, Egon Schiele works on paper and paintings by Fernand Léger.
Christie’s led the week with a total of $937.5 million. Of this, Impressionist and modern art accounted for $472.97 million, while postwar and contemporary took $464.5 million. Sotheby’s realized $749.8 million, including $331.5 million for Impressionist art, and $418.3 million for contemporary art. Phillips, realized $67.5 million, including $8.2 million for a benefit auction held on behalf of Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, scheduled to open at its new location, 235 Bowery, in December.