NEW YORK—Despite a decline in volume from a year ago and totals that were a fraction of what they were at the peak of the art market boom, the London auctions of Postwar and contemporary art, which coincided with the annual Frieze Art Fair, held Oct. 15–18, were surprisingly upbeat and showed confidence in the contemporary market, observers said.
“There was no sense of the mood that we’ve experienced in the previous nine months,” said Abigail Asher, a partner in the New York–based art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. “There were some very strong prices despite the drop in volume and very healthy activity, with multiple bidders” on many lots, she added. Asher told ARTnewsletter that she acquired a Lucio Fontana work for a client, and had gone to London expecting to acquire several more, but was surprised by the intensity of competition.
The total for sales held at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Co. Oct. 16–17 was £47.4 million ($75.8 million), down from the £99.9 million ($173 million) achieved last fall. In October 2007, as the market was peaking, total sales were £174 million ($353 million). The current total was just above the high estimate of £45.5 million, and represented a 53 percent decline from last year’s total for comparative sales. The number of lots offered fell by 31.5 percent, to 729 from 1,063. The drop in actual sales was far less dramatic than the 81 percent decline in estimates calculated by Bloomberg, and was softened by the healthy sell-through rate of 79 percent, versus about 64 percent last year—which all goes to demonstrate that the market has reached a new kind of stability.
Not counting the Phillips sale, the most recent total was evenly divided between Sotheby’s and Christie’s. On Oct. 16, Sotheby’s realized a total of £20.2 million ($32.8 million) in an auction of contemporary art, including Arab and Iranian art, that brought in £12.8 million ($20.8 million), and a sale of 20th-century Italian art that totaled £7.4 million ($12 million).
Christie’s realized £20.5 million ($33.2 million) in two sales. Its evening sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Oct. 16, featuring a section devoted to Italian art, realized a total of £17 million ($27.7 million); the day contemporary sale on Oct. 17 took in £3.5 million ($5.7 million).
Phillips’ evening sale of contemporary art on Oct. 17 realized £4.1 million ($6.7 million), and its day sale took in £2.6 million ($4.3 million), for a total of £6.7 million ($11 million). Last year’s sales at Phillips realized a total of £8.1 million ($14.1 million).
The top lot at Sotheby’s was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Fuego Flores, 1983. At Christie’s, the top lot was Paris Bar, 1991, a painting by Martin Kippenberger, which sold for £2.3 million ($3.7 million) against an £800,000/1.2 million estimate. Christie’s also set a record for a work by Leipzig School artist Neo Rauch, when his painting Stellwerk (Signal Box), 1999, sold for £892,450 ($1.45 million), nearly double the estimate of £350,000/450,000.
“The market is very good; prices and sales have been adjusted accordingly,” private dealer Nicholas Maclean told ARTnewsletter. “There were very few casualties.” He added, “Good pictures are still selling well, and ultimately there is more money out there chasing good works than there are available. Lesser-quality works tend to have dropped 30 to 40 percent from last year’s prices.”
The mood at the Frieze Art Fair was also upbeat, with organizers reporting attendance of 60,000, on par with that of the last two years. Reported sales included Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture The Couple, which was sold by Hauser & Wirth to a European collection for $3.5 million, and Rauch’s painting Harmios, which was sold by David Zwirner for $1 million.