Overall, the sales this week indicated that for ‘fresh to market’ works, at conservative estimates, the market is on fine form. Those paintings that struggled all tended to be items that had been up for sale previously or significantly exposed to the market in the past five years. June in London is still a wonderful place to offer works of art and though conditions are not ideal (elections, interest rates, Brexit et al.) there were still buyers pacing through the galleries and an art fair, of sorts, doing trade in Chelsea too. I was curious but unsurprised that Christie’s chose not to compete with Sotheby’s in not holding an Evening sale this Summer. The die was cast a few years ago when, during Covid, Christie’s decided to hold their major contemporary sales in October to tie in with the vast Frieze fairs in Regent’s Park. Whilst the Impressionist and Modern Departments continued to rally around the summer seasons it was only a matter of time before both departments collaborated on an Autumn schedule. That said, it seems that the Impressionist market still expects a tranche of June auctions in London, and this was telling, as some of the best results of the season were recorded at Sotheby’s for paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Pablo Picasso.

Indeed, Sotheby’s Evening sale was a success due to several factors: a lower buyer’s premium (though higher vendor’s commission will follow), no real competition in the Impressionist and Modern sector and a fabulous, though relatively low value, collection from Ralph I. Goldenberg. The Evening sale brought 83.6m GBP with a few notable withdrawn lots including the cover lot; a Tamara de Lempicka nude acquired in 2012 for 5.5m USD and now offered at 6-8m GBP (7.5 – 10.1m USD). This was a mighty upsell attempt and a significant risk when the market is so squeamish about buying ‘shopworn’ pieces. However, there were strong prices including a sale to the guarantee for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work ‘Portrait of the Artist as a young derelict’ for 15m GBP hammer, Renoir’s ‘Bouquet de lilas’ still-life that flew to a hammer price of 5.8m GBP and a 1960 Picasso, ‘Nu Assis’ which made 5.8m GBP hammer. The market for Impressionists is good so long as estimates are conservative and realistic. The best Impressionist work was the Alfred Sisley ‘La Tamise avec Hampton Church’ which realised 950,000 GBP hammer and saw the bargain of the evening in my opinion. Alfred Sisley’s market is one to watch as the good, fully worked paintings are now selling for a fraction of what they made even 5 years ago. He is a genuine Impressionist and a fabulous artist – arguably more consistent in quality than even the great Camille Pissarro. Another superb painting that undersold was the Picasso composition ‘Guitare sur un tapis rouge’ of 1922 that could have made 20m USD with the wind behind it, in different market conditions. There were a few small condition flaws but for a colourful work of that type I thought the price of 9.3m GBP hammer was a relative steal.

The presence of a decent private owner collection in an evening sale is always a highlight as it tends to involve fresh work with attractive estimates. The Goldenberg collection was a gem and held at least 10 works of real interest: from Agnes Martin’s little painting of 2001, which fetched a striking 620,000 GBP hammer, to the most beautiful little ‘Stabile’ by Alexander Calder which made 290,000 GBP hammer. That said, there were some notable passes, and I was surprised by the lack of attention given to the 1958 Rauschenberg sculpture which failed to sell at a low estimate of only 350,000 GBP. One thing that I would say about the 2024 art market is that there are opportunities galore and that was one such gem that was missed.

The Day sales were solid if unspectacular and though I underbid a wonderful Renoir Landscape, that was eventually sold for 480,000 GBP hammer (estimate 350,000-450,000 GBP), the depth of bidding was not, overall, terribly strong. Renoir’s market is deep but he was a prolific artist so another will be around the corner – patience is key. Good, blue chip, names from the modern era saw the best numbers with Brice Marden, Andy Warhol and even Robert Indiana (over 1m GBP for a ‘LOVE’ sculpture) making amazing sums. There was the odd strong price for post-2010 contemporary work but overall, the market does seem cautious with even a marvellous Nicolas Party watercolour at Christie’s struggling to sell at just a shade over 50,000 GBP including premium.

As with the evening sales the buying audience is increasingly quality-focused and there was a high ‘BI’ (bought in) lot count across all the Day sale auctions. Most of the works that were being re-offered or those that were ‘B minus’ didn’t find a buyer. It would be interesting to see how Sotheby’s and Christie’s fared in their post-sale private sales. When lots fail to find a buyer then trade buyers often approach the house to secure the lots at discount prices. When a work goes up for auction and fails to sell it can be up to 25% less valuable having been ‘burnt to market’. When times are good then auction is a great way to sell – when times are hard then one must be cautious, and conservative, in selling so publicly.

The Phillip’s Evening & Day Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art (albeit, confusingly, held in one long session) saw the top lots perform well but the weaker work struggle. There were great prices for George Condo and his large cubist series work, ‘Green and Purple Head Composition,’ (1m GBP) and Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup’ (albeit a late 1986 version) for 850,000 GBP including premium. Also, following her recent sellout shows with Pace in NYC the work of Marina Perez Simão continues to prove a magnet with a large 2021 work making over 120,000 GBP (double the low estimate).

Overall, a good set of results for the art market and June ’24 shows that this is a buyer’s market with lots of lovely opportunities out there. Please, do get in touch when buying works of art at significant prices. There are countless pitfalls for the uninitiated.