November New York Art Auctions Confuse Market – artmarketblog.com
The 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 $40,402,500. The 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-
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.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.
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