November New York Art Auctions Confuse Market –

max ernst November New York Art Auctions Confuse Market   artmarketblog.comThe recent round of Contemporary, Modern and Impressionist art auctions produced some interesting results that require some serious analysis to understand.  Thanks to Sotheby’s November Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which saw the record sale of four Clyfford still paintings, there has been plenty of confident banter surrounding the current strength of the art market.  But is this confidence misplaced?  A more widespread and objective analysis of recent art auctions would suggest so.  Take the Clyfford Still auction for instance.  The entire auction produced a total of $315,837,000, which was well above the $192,000,000 – 270,800,000  pre-sale estimate, and was also the company’s third highest Contemporary Art Evening sale total.  However, the four Clyfford Still paintings made up $114 million of the sale total against a $71 million high estimate.

Considering that the four Clyfford Still paintings paintings were a complete and utter anomaly because of the fact that they should never really have gone to auction, and  also because they represent a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated opportunity, I think it only fair that they be removed from the equation.  After all, if 95% of Still’s oeuvre were not out of bounds it is unlikely that the prices being achieved for his work would be anything close to what they have been, right?  What the sale of the Still paintings tells us about the market is that there is still plenty of money available when an opportunity arises to make a highly significant purchase.

Next on the agenda is Gerhard Richter whose Abstraktes Bild (849-3) 1997 set a new auction record for the artists of $20.8 million.  A total of eight Richter paintings were sold by Sotheby’s for a total of $74 million against a pre-sale expectation of $27 million, which is a great result but not an unexpected one considering that a major retrospective of Richter’s work has recently opened at the Tate Modern in London.  Sotheby’s should be congratulated for the success achieved with the sale of the Richter paintings that do deserve to be recognised in their sale total unlike the Still paintings.

What concerns me most is that when the prices achieved for the eight Richter works and the four Still works are combined the result is a startling total of $188,000,000 which is more than half of the entire total of the Sotheby’s sale.  The reason this concerns me is that the numbers could easily be used to justify a bullish view of the art market  – and have been numerous times over recent weeks.  Although Sotheby’s did achieve an excellent result and deserve to  be praised for winning the opportunity to sell the Still paintings, the results need to be approached with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Christie’s didn’t fair as well as Sotheby’s with their Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale managing 90% sold by lot and 87% by value for a total of $247,597,000 against an estimate of $226,450,000-$312,340,000. With commissions removed, Christie’s failed to break the low estimate although they did manage to set 16 new world auction records for artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray and Louise Bourgeois.

Phillips de Pury did okay with their Contemporary Art Evening Sale achieving 94% by value and 84% by lot with a sale total of $71,292,500 against an estimate of $66,560,000 – 97,970,000. A new world auction record was set for Richard Serra whose Palms sold for $2,322,500 against an estimate of $2,500,000 – 3,500,000.

The all important Impressionist and Modern Art sales failed to produce any spectacular results.  Sotheby’s once again triumped over Christie’s with an evening sale total of $199,804,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $167.6-229.9 million and a sold by lot rate of 84%.  Exceeding the May 2011 sale total, Sotheby’s set new auction records for Gustave Caillebotte, Tamara de Lempicka and Maxime Maufra with the top price of the auction going to Klimt’s Litzlberg am Attersee (Litzlberg on the Attersee) which sold for $40,402,500The unusual “in excess of $25 million” estimate provided for Litzlberg am Attersee (Litzlberg on the Attersee) suggests that Sotheby’s had were unsure about how successful this work would be and thus chose to provide an estimate that ensured the greatest chance of a positively perceived result.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale was estimated to achieve more than $215,000 but only managed a total of $140,773,500.  The highlight of the sale was Max Ernst’s The Stolen Mirror, which sold for $16,322,500 against an estimate of $4,000,000-6,000000, setting a new artist record that more than tripled the artist’s previous record.  A new auction record was also set for any single print sold at auction with Pablo Picasso’s La femme qui pleure selling for $5,122,500 against an estimate of $1.5-2.5 million.

Overall, the major November auctions produced relatively consistent results that suggest a market dominated by buyers who have the money to spend, and are interested in purchasing fine art, but only at the safe haven high end of the market. The fact that the market is relying on the work of a small number of highly desirable artists is concerning as it leaves a very small margin for error.


Max Ernst (1891-1976)
The Stolen Mirror
signed ‘max ernst’ (lower right); signed again, dated and inscribed ‘max ernst 1941 product of France’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm.)
Painted in 1941

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.comt November New York Art Auctions Confuse Market, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

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  • Craig Mattoli

    Personally, I don’t find the numbers confusing at all. They show a weak market, on the auctions side, and only because one major auction house lowered it’s ranges after the other had a bad day, the day before, did they have a better day.
    To generalize your hypothesis, that some may use the raw data to point to strength, I see many of the art media buying into too much of what they are fed by auction houses and other “experts”; only wish some of those others would allow comments added to their articles, like you do, because I have way too much to say.
    I beleive that a more important “trend” that I have seen over the past several years is that, just like the Stills opportunity, many a large long-term collection has come up for sale, in total, at auction for the first time in decades or even in as much as a century. That, to me, is very telling.
    In general investment, there are two important things that I always remember:
    1) The Baron de Rothschilde, when asked how he got so rich, replied: I sold too soon.
    2)The set of observations by Dow of the stock market, in the 1800′s, Was that professionals accumulate at the bottom of the market and are already selling by the time others begin to see an upward trend; they are totally out of the market by the time the frenzy comes along and leads to a crask.

    • admin

      Thanks for the comment Craig. I am glad that you don’t find the numbers confusing; so many people obviously do. You are right about the number of collections being sold at auction. Money has definitely become more important to connoisseurs than developing a worthwhile collection.

  • Craig Mattoli

    Thanks. From what I’ve seen, I think that you do intelligent, insightful, and unbiased analysis, which is much more than I can say about many major art publications. And, then, there’s China, where most editiorial comment is paid for, which I find disgraceful, but knowledge of that is what’s more important.

  • Margie FitzSimons

    Your summary of the November auction results makes enormous sense to me. I particularly like how you describe the buying pattern of those collecting art these days as restricted to the safer high end pieces. I think you are absolutely right. 
    At the Miami fairs in early December, there was an overwhelming crowd of interested viewers patronizing all six or seven fairs that I attended, but the real activity was centered around the booths with high ticket work. Of course, there was a great deal of attention paid to any art that was unique and new, but Art Basel, which attracts the collectors who are in a market for art in seven figures, was definitely the most well-attended.
    When do you think people will return to buying fine art because they want to enjoy it on a daily basis in their homes or offices and not so much as an extremely expensive, attention-grabbing commodity to be traded?

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