When I travelled out to New York for the first week of the auction season there was more than a little concern over the state of the market. Following some relatively poor Hong Kong sell-through rates in October and some variable results from New York in May (although less-so in London in June) there were fears of a slight market correction. However, the takeaway from the Fall season is that the market is as deep and as strong as ever, provided that works are appropriately estimated and of the requisite calibre – as seen in the superb Christie’s 20th Century Evening sale (about more of which to follow). It is worth mentioning that more than one of my Sotheby’s colleagues told me they were disappointed by the result of the large Picasso ‘Femme a la montre’ that made a staggering $140 million! Such is the confidence of the auction houses that expectations are, at times, unrealistically high… especially at a time of 5% interest rates and various international horrors. Sotheby’s will have taken a financial hit on the Fisher Landau collection (subject to the guaranteed works they can sell post-sale) but the appetite for great works of art is still apparent, without question.
In essence, if you provide the market with good works of art at reasonable estimates there is plenty of financial largesse to prop up the market. Over the last 12 years we have witnessed an extraordinary bull market that will only subside when the calibre of works offered starts to fall. It is down to the Auction House guarantee and ‘irrevocable bid’ (IB) systems that appetites are still strong – guarantees mean selling clients are willing to sell and IBs mean buying clients are willing to play the game: of purchasing risk in the pursuit of either a work of art or a financial gain. My feeling is that so long as you buy and sell works of real quality and don’t get too caught up in the hype: the art market is in a healthy place at present.
In attending the Sotheby’s sale of Emily Fisher Landau’s collection, it was pretty clear that a fair few works were selling to the guarantee – much to the chagrin of Sotheby’s who had certainly hoped for more bidding on the top lots. The Ruscha market had been expected to bounce following the retrospective at MOMA, but I find his work hard to contemplate at 40m USD which was the guarantee for ‘Boss’ his work of 1964 that had attracted much fanfare in the lead up to the auction season. That huge 2019 price of 50m USD for his work ‘Radio’ was, I suspect, a bit of an outlier. To expect Warhol-levels of engagement over the three works in the sale was unlikely despite a strong final price for ‘Mint (Green)’ that fetched over 12m USD. The blue riband picture of the week was the large 1932 Picasso painting ‘Femme à la montre’ – a portrait of Marie Therese that was sold, with three bidders competing, for 140m USD. That is a colossal price for a somewhat unemotive painting and I preferred the smaller ‘Femme endormie’ of 1934 at Christie’s which fetched 42m USD from a low estimate of 25m USD. Yet though it is easy to criticise an auction house for relying on the intricacies of the various IB and guarantee products there was a clear indication that the market was still performing fine – the backing of the whole collection meant that there were no nasty headlines about the Fisher Landau collection faring badly.
As mentioned above the real star of the week was the outstanding Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale that managed to fetch over 640m USD with 95% sold by lot. The sale saw the world record for a work by the genius Richard Diebenkorn (46m USD for his Matisse-inspired ‘Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad’) which was a glorious interpretation of the great Matisse masterpieces in the Hermitage. There were staggering figures for the Magritte staple: ‘L’Empire des lumières’ which made 35m USD and Monet’s large waterlilies: 74m USD. Under the radar were two interesting prices: 1.3m USD for Lynne Drexler’s ‘Flowering Judas 2’ and the large but late Bonnard, ‘Bord de mer’, which fetched nearly 3m USD. Classic, pretty, ‘modern’ painting seems to be making something of a comeback in these troubled times.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale was somewhat dependent on the results of the Fisher Landau sale but they had many super works too. The sale was a success fetching 223m USD with 93% sold by lot. Chagall’s flying couple in ‘Au-Dessus de la Ville’ made 16m USD which will prove a savvy buy as Chagall is bought across all collecting profiles. I see his market deepening as the market’s reversion to ‘prettiness’ over cutting-edge contemporary gathers pace. One of my favourite works of the week, mainly as it proves Monet’s wonderful eye for composition as well as colour, was ‘Le moulin de Limetz’ (1888). A gorgeous flaneur-like scene with a composition that cuts the painting in two – dark and blue-green flourishes into a bright yellow and red of the river-scape. It is a tour de force and deserved all its 25m USD. A more pioneering, brave, painting by Monet you will not find.
Over at Phillips the Triton sale was a real hit with great results across the board (156m USD with 96% sold) though it was unsure how fruitful the deal proved to be. I was delighted to see Phillip’s make waves in this sector as for too long the big two have dominated the market for Impressionist & Modern, long may it continue. A greater sense of competition amongst these top houses is only a good thing. Braque’s early ‘La Bouteille de Bass’ was a glorious piece of analytical Cubism – a museum-calibre, pioneer of a picture which made 8.5m USD and the early Leger, ‘Le 14 Juillet’, was the centrepiece of the sale, certainly deserving of its eventual 17.6m USD.
A more immediate, and less reported upon, issue would be in the day sales where much of the earning power is greatest: vendors pay commission fees (as opposed to having them waived) and in most cases buyer’s premium is untouched. Those sales were a little under par with most of the sales selling at around 80% i.e. not too bad. I recall several sales in my times at Sotheby’s selling around 75%. Where there might be some concern is in the middle market where those paintings at the back end of the day sales are struggling to find buyers. The market is fine, but the adage has never been more apparent – use an advisor and ensure that you buy the very best you can in a specific field.