NEW YORK—The strength of the recent London series of Impressionist, modern, Postwar and contemporary art (Feb. 6–17) at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and Phillips de Pury & Company, surprised even the most bullish of observers and affirmed the continued vitality of the global art market. In all, sales at the four houses totaled just over £461 million ($724 million), compared with approximately £435 million ($696 million) in last year’s series.
Experts breathed a sigh of relief after expressing concern that the newly expanded UK resale royalty or droit de suite—which as of the start of the year now applies to artists deceased 70 years or less—appeared to have little or no impact on either consignments or buying. However, many said it is too soon to tell if this will be the case going forward. Critics have argued that the royalty will drive market activity to other major salerooms, such as New York, where the royalty is not in place.
For now though, the houses were more than content with sales across the board. At Sotheby’s, the total after two weeks was a healthy £162 million ($256.5 million). Of this, £96 million ($152 million) was for Impressionist and modern sales, while contemporary art brought a combined total of £66.1 million ($103.8 million), surpassing the presale high estimate of £65.6 million.
Many specialists and experts commented on the depth and international breadth of the bidding with Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s deputy chair, Europe, pointing to “bidders from 50 countries” for the Impressionist offerings and “bidders from 42 countries” registered for the contemporary sales. Said Barker: “The results of these two weeks of major sales are both strong and positive indicators of the health of the art market.”
The picture was bright at Christie’s as well, where several private collections and focused groups of work, including Lucian Freud etchings and works on paper by David Hockney, fueled sales near record levels. The house realized a combined total of about £290 million ($455 million) for the overall series.
Said Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s Europe and chair of the Impressionist and modern art department: “We had strong bidding from Europe and the U.S., together with increasing participation from Asia, the Middle East and South America. Over the past decade, we have been investing in our geographies and this has given us a broad regional presence that can convene bidders at auctions in London, or any of our global salerooms.”
At the end of the series, Phillips had added another £3.4 million ($5.4 million) in contemporary art auctions with a Feb. 17 day sale that brought its overall total to £9.1 million ($14.3 million), including new records for cutting-edge work by Walead Beshty.
The sales have further boosted the view that the art market has largely shaken off the economic woes that have weighed on equities and other financial sectors.
A Feb. 12 report on Sotheby’s, from Wedbush Securities analyst Rommel Dionisio, notes that a “sharp recovery in relevant financial indices since fall 2011 auction season [is] a bullish leading indicator for global art demand in 2012.” Dionisio goes on to say, “global wealth creation among the world’s wealthiest individuals should again translate to growing art market demand in 2012.” He raised Sotheby’s price target to $46 per share, from $37, and maintains an “outperform” rating on the stock. As ARTnewsletter was published, shares were trading at just under $39 per share.
Days after the London sales concluded, Sotheby’s announced it had won the consignment of an extremely rare work for the upcoming May series of Impressionist art in New York: Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1895, one of only four versions, and the only one remaining in private hands. The work was consigned by Norway-based Petter Olsen, whose father, Thomas Olsen, was a friend and supporter of Munch. The piece is estimated at upwards of $80 million, with proceeds earmarked for a museum, art center and hotel; all to be created on Petter Olsen’s farm in Norway and scheduled to open next year, coinciding with Munch’s 150th anniversary.
Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art, said the consignment of the work is the “culmination of many years of relationship and discussion,” with Mr. Olsen, on whose behalf the house has sold previous Munch works. Noting the artist’s anniversary and the planned art center, as well as the suite of major Munch museum exhibitions throughout Europe in recent years, Shaw says the timing of the sale comes amid “a particularly compelling set of circumstances.” The current record for a Munch painting is the $38.2 million achieved for Vampire, 1894, at Sotheby’s New York in late 2008.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s will release fourth-quarter and full-year 2011 earnings next Wednesday (Feb. 29), which will provide an even more in-depth look at the state of the art market.