Last Wednesday night, at Christie’s New York, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, sold for 450m USD: shattering the record for a work of art sold at auction by 270m USD. When Giacometti’s Standing Figure broke nine figures at auction I was working at Sotheby’s London and no one could quite believe what had happened – we were stunned by the sheer depth of bidding. Yet in the case of the da Vinci increments were in 10m USD up to 200m USD. It has blown open the value of works of art for ever. Remember, this work was sold to the previous owner (Mr. Rybovliev) for ‘only’ 125m USD in 2013. It has now become the only work in his collection to have made money – and how.
Other than the da Vinci the market was strong in pricing but not necessarily in depth of bidding. This was simply due to very high estimate ranges which put off bidders – there was very little trade bidding which was telling. I feel that some of the better pieces were overshadowed by the Van Gogh result at Christie’s (which made over 80m USD) and the famous da Vinci.
This was a season of yet more Irrevocable Bids (IBs) where lots are pre-sold and auction house risks are negated. Although this hampers the upside to the auction house it serves to make the auctions fairly dull and featureless. The trade believes that sell-through rates are artificially high these days: auctions seem to be pre-planned and ‘scripted’ more and more.
The major highlights, other than the Da Vinci were mainly at Christie’s though Sotheby’s had a fantastic price for Chagall with a world record that had long been too low for such a key figure. The Perry Bass collection at the Rockefeller was a wonderful selection of Impressionist and Modern paintings including an 1889 Van Gogh and a large 1933 Miro painting. The Van Gogh made 82m USD and was the star of the show. Painted in St Remy it was a small but excellent example from his most commercial period. The Miro was a large, vaguely Surreal, canvas which made 23m USD – not his highest price but a large sum for a very good, if not exceptional, painting.
Also of note at Christie’s was the L’empire des Lumières by Magritte which made almost as much as when it was offered by Dickinson in Frieze Masters in 2016. Dickinson were asking 25m USD and last week it sold for 20.5m USD. This is a good example of the trade being second best to the auction houses who now, through the help of advisors, conquer the market for new buyers, even in the age of countless art fairs.
Fernand Leger also made a world-record price with a 1913 masterpiece making 70m USD. I thought the work was excellent but I was overwhelmed by the price which was double the figure made for an arguably better piece: sold at Sotheby’s back in 2008.
Over at Sotheby’s we saw a world-record for Marc Chagall with 28.5m USD being paid for the 1928 work Les Amoureux. This picture was heavily varnished and not in the best condition – I did not, in any way, feel it deserved such a price but that was often the story of the week. The Claude Monet market is strong as ever with the Glacons (lot 25) making 23.3m USD and several other inferior works making well over estimate.
Overall it was a strong sale season and the trade felt that very few lots went through the houses under-sold. Yet again this was proof that one needs to be careful in one’s bidding and spot the best value: which is almost always in the lesser Day Sales. Both the Day sales did well but Christie’s had the cream of the crop. The outstanding highlights included a fabulous group of Bugatti Bronzes at Christie’s and a wonderful, though challenging, Max Ernst oil, Amour Violent, at Sotheby’s. The proof is in the pricing and I felt Christie’s had their Day Sale auction estimates at a better level.
The totals were telling in Impressionist and Modern: with Christie’s having sold 530m USD to Sotheby’s 312m USD. Indeed, Day Sale or Evening Sale, Tadd Smith, the Sotheby’s CEO, is keener on a high stock price over turnover and this sale season was testament to that.
Never has it been more important to use an advisor and going into the holiday season I hope the trade find some stock for the busy December period: the thirst for great art at reasonable price points is hard to quench.