Auction Update: Modern And Contemporary Art Breaking The Billion

Last week, the auction houses threw open their New York bidding rooms and captured the attention of the art world – and it was a rollercoaster couple of weeks, providing a great deal of conflicting material for market analysts to try and sew together.
Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s Impressionist and Modern auctions concluded well below estimate, and left commentators scratching their chins and pondering whether this was further evidence that the integument of the art market bubble had finally been pricked. But then this week, it all appeared to transform – much to the delight of Sotheby’s and Christie’s – as both houses saw and celebrated record totals in their post-war and contemporary art sales. So what do such contradictory results actually say about the state of the art market? Are trends optimistic or pessimistic? And what consistent insights can be drawn when both sets of auctions are taken together?
In the Impressionist and Modern auctions, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s failed to reach their overall estimates: Christie’s had hoped to reach at least $250m, but only managed $205m, while Sotheby’s gained a lower total, $163m, but weren’t quite as far from their minimum estimate of $169m. At last year’s equivalent auction, Sotheby’s had taken in almost $200m, so there was a comparative as well as an immediate disappointment. Even the head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern department, Simon Shaw, acknowledged this, admitting that “it was clear collectors felt the estimates were too high.”
Half of Sotheby’s total came solely from Picasso, one figure encompassing 50% of an entire epoch’s financial art value. Meanwhile, a single Monet painting, Nymphéas, made up almost 25% of Christie’s total. Another Monet, an early, swishing image of wheat fields, almost doubled its estimate to go for $12m. These trophy pieces– where the owner can proudly point to a universally recognised name hanging on their wall – still seem to have a huge draw, but as certain commentators recognised, the broader deflation was caused by a lack of interest in less ostentatious, second-tier works.
But that was only the first half of Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York sales. Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14 November saw their respective Post-War and Contemporary auctions, and they completely reversed the picture painted by the preceding Impressionist and Modern events. Both set new records for a single auction for each auction house, with a total of $375m at Sotheby’s and of almost $412m at Christie’s.
The biggest story of Sotheby’s sale was the $75.1m price paid for No.1 (Royal Red and Blue) by Mark Rothko. Intense bidding decimated its pre-sale estimate of $35-50m, though it fell just over $10m short of the record for a Rothko. But the auction, this time, didn’t rely on a single piece or single artist, and a phalanx of resonant names helped heap up the overall total. A Jackson Pollock drip painting, Number 4. 1951, took over $40m, again well over its estimate. A Bacon “screaming pope” went for $30m, a Willem de Kooning just under $20m, and a Gerhard Richter $17.4m. It was a sale dominated by abstract expressionist pieces, then, but even the broader picture showed that 85% of the 69 lots were sold – surely, as Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer said, “”If you want to talk about the market being happy, healthy and well, well, here it is.”
There is an ‘on the other hand,’ however. The top ten of these 69 lots – a mere 14.5% – made up 75% of the evening’s record-breaking total. As the Art Market Monitor noted, were it not for Sotheby’s careful moulding of the evening’s movements – lowering reserves, re-opening a bought-in lot – then “the sale would have been a casualty strewn debacle on the lower end.” Of the last 29 lots, nine failed to sell and thirteen went for below-estimate totals. So it is clear that a similar pattern is in fact seen in Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary auction as in its Impressionist and Modern: awe-inspiring and immediately recognisable pieces soared, while less-established pieces – in market terms, riskier investments – straggled behind, carried by the current of the forerunners, and disguised by the glittering veil those larger sales cast over events.
Christie’s post-war and contemporary auction was superficially even more spectacular, although it lacked the one-off showcase of Rothko’s $75m sale. A Kline piece topped its estimate by going for $40m, an auction record for the artist. Generally, though, the focus moved from abstract expressionism to pop art, which means, of course, Warhol and his post-pop, equally commercial disciple Jeff Koons. Warhol’s 1962 painting “Statue of Liberty” brought in $43m, while a mid-sixties image of an insouciant Marlon Brando leaning on his motorbike brought over $20m. Koons’s Tulips went for over $33m, beating its estimate by $8m.
Christie’s sale was a more complete, broad-based success, and the duff notes discernible beneath the fanfare of Sotheby’s equivalent event were largely absent. Seven artist records were set, and most pertinently, 67 out of 73 lots were sold with little difficulty.  It is hard to read anything into the night other than that the art market remains strong and art a very alluring place for people to park their cash. With low interest rates, banks aren’t particularly attractive; property is distrusted; and most luxury items, such as fast cars, will inevitably depreciate as time goes on. Art, in the current climate, remains a popular bet.
As the Impressionist and Modern auctions revealed, however, only really solid investments – at least, immediately recognisable names – are truly strong, and they provide the buoyancy that keeps the market afloat. In particular, it seems to be pop art and its offspring that ensure an auction is truly solid – the emphasis on this was the major difference between Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions. This is a reason for the concern over the Warhol Foundation’s sale of 20,000 Warhol pieces, announced in September. It was thought this could flood the market, and decrease the value of other Warhol works. Such a consequence could cause real panic among those interested in art as an investment.
This week’s events, though, suggest this isn’t going to happen. A Christie’s auction on November 12 saw 350 Warhol works from his Foundation sell for a total of $17m. Two days later, his Statute of Liberty went for $43m, his Brando for $20m, and a few other pieces for estimate-beating prices. So, despite mixed results, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the market remains strong, and that Warhol is continuing, 25 years after his death, to embody his own controversial outlook: “Good business is the best art.”

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