Contemporary Art

Sotheby's $315m Contemporary Sale

It wasn't an exciting night in the art market but it was a solid one as Asian buyers kept the Ultra-Contemporary market going and a quiet flight to quality took place.

LiveArt After Action Report:  Sotheby’s The Now

Total: $137,863,700 with 100% sold (22/22 + 1 lot withdrawn)
Composition of Results:  45% above/ 36% within/ 18% below estimates 
Aggregate Low Estimate: $29,380,000
Aggregate Hammer: $37,030,000
Hammer Ratio: 1.26
Average Lot Value: $2,083,580

Asia to the rescue: The strength of The Now sale was the unexpected bright point of Sotheby’s evening of Contemporary art sales. The firm’s publicity department made sure to communicate that a key element of that strength came from Asian buyers and bidders. As with the Paul G. Allen sale, Asian bidders provided the swing money that can drive a work’s final price to something eye-catching. According to Sotheby’s, Asian buyers took home works by  by Yoshitomo Nara, Nicholas Party, Salman Toor, Cecily Brown, Maria Berrio, Christina Quarles, Anna Weyant and Avery Singer. Those lots accounted for half of the value of The Now sale. Asian bidders were also active on almost half (45%) of the lots, including the (Louis Fratino and Julian Nguyen).

What Asian buyers took home: The Louis Fratino doubled the artist’s previous record price—for a less explicit work—to sell for $730,800, a clear signal that some markets with momentum will continue to rise. Salman Toor’s echt image—the painting that starred in his show at The Whitney and appeared in many of the press reports—also doubled his previous record, giving his market a second wind. Julien Nguyen’s second big sale at Sotheby’s would seem to be just the beginning of a market run. Anna Weyant’s market continues to solidify around subject matter with Girl Crying at a Party selling in line with a not dissimilar work in size and imagery that sold in London for the same price. Competition for Avery Singer’s work is easing and the result is a new price point around $2 million (which remains a great deal of money for a young artist.) Consistent prices for Maria Bérrio continue as collectors scour the market for her past work. One place an Asian buyer seems to have benefitted from an aging market was in the purchase of Cecily Brown’s Eyes Wide Shut. The work had all of the earmarks—date, size and color—of work that would sell toward the upper end of her pricing closer to the $6 million mark. As it turned out, $4.5 million was a great return for a seller who paid $700,000 for the work 15 years ago and probably a good deal for the buyer. 

Quashing Quarles Doubts: There’s been a fair bit of frustration around the Christina Quarles market since Sotheby’s set the spectacular $4.5 million price for a work sold by Howard Rachofsky. That sale seemed to ride on the success of Quarles’s work in the Venice Biennale and Rachofsky’s stature as a collector. But a subsequent strong show at Hauser + Wirth with asking prices above her previous record left observers wondering whether a Quarles could sell somewhere between Hauser’s primary prices and Sotheby’s monumental secondary sale. The team at Sotheby’s mostly delivered with a work estimated around her previous record price (and recent sales) that achieved a hammer slightly above the primary asking prices and posting a premium price pushing into new territory. The $4.5 million remains an outlier. And it may take some time before the public markets see new prices that advance her market. Nevertheless, the sale was welcome confirmation against the doubters. 

Still room to grow and for markets to settle: Jacqueline Humphries' market continued to move forward with a new auction record at $850,500. The sale builds on a show at Greene Naftali in New York and a progression of lower prices at auction in 2022 that supported her $687,500 record from a year ago. The expectation going into these sales was that artists like Humphries might be the most affected by collectors’ caution. Instead, the market now has price patterns that help establish more confidence in her market. Something of the opposite seems to have happened in Lucy Bull’s market where the previous (dare we say) bullishness has pulled back some. Sotheby’s sold a Bull around the $500,000 mark a day after Phillips did something similar. That may be Bull’s new price point even though works were recently selling closer to the million-dollar level. The only visible difference in Bull’s market was a New York show that failed to follow up on collector’s expectations. If Bull’s work has a new level—one that is still quite strong for a young painter—that may be more indicative of the conventional wisdom around her work than a new art market. 

LiveArt After Action Report: Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale

Total: $253,821,175 with 95% sold (37/39 + 1 lot withdrawn)
Composition of Results:  21% above/ 47% within/ 27% below estimates 
Aggregate Low Estimate: $239,200,000
Aggregate Hammer: $231,090,000
Hammer Ratio: 0.97
Average Lot Value: $7,474,131

There are two art markets right now: It would be tempting to view Sotheby’s results as bifurcated between the higher-priced Contemporary market with tepid bidding for the Warhols, de Koonings, Bacons and Basquiats (not to mention Boettis and Lichtensteins) and dynamic bidding for the so-called “ultra-Contemporary” artists offered in The Now sale. After all, nearly half of the lots in The Now sold above estimates with strong competition and only a fifth of the Contemporary works saw dynamic bidding. But a better distinction might be to suggest that there are markets where buyers know what a good price should be and markets that are in need of price discovery. 

Estimates are marketing tools: The success of The Now sale at a time when buyers might be more expected to pursue a flight-to-quality strategy seems to support that distinction. The conventional wisdom about the economy is that a recession is approaching. Inflation seems to be abating but remains very high. The kinds of works that will retain their value should be art by well-established figures. Yet at Sotheby’s very good works by the best names were all sold at prices near or below the low estimate; however, this is probably a function of estimates more than it is one of prices. All three de Koonings sold for prices in line with previous works. The Boetti sold for a record price even below the estimates. Francis Bacon’s Three studies for a portrait of Lucian Freud made almost exactly the same price as a similar work from the Paul Allen collection. A Jean-Michel Basquiat silkscreen that happens to be a rare large-scale editioned work sold for $3.6 million. Another example sold two years ago for $2.9 million. That’s a 27% rise even though the work sold within the estimates. Collectors are buying quality but sellers already know the price that should be paid.

Managed boredom: Too much of the reaction to these auctions seems to be built upon the assumption without wild bidding there is no art market. Instead, we’re seeing what might be considered a soft landing. It’s true that the economy remains stronger than corporate expectations. So these sales haven’t run into a full buyer’s strike where little sells. And the auction houses have become quite adept at deal-making in the days leading up to the sales which makes for boring theater but decent business. 

Warhol, Where Art Thou? A final illustration of this phenomenon comes from the White Disaster painting that Sotheby’s sold for $85.3 million. The Warhol market has been difficult to read for the past few years. On the one hand, his imagery remains very much in demand if we use the prints and multiples market as a measure. One theory is that as more Warhols sell for ever higher prices, demand goes down into the prints which were made with a similar method and cost a tiny fraction of what the big works go for. On the other hand, Warhol's auction record nearly doubled earlier this year.  We speculated that the Marilyn sale would allow for more sales between the old public record of $105 million and the new one of $195 million. The White Disaster seemed to offer a good test case. Priced at $80 million, bidding to a selling price in the low nine figures didn’t seem out of the question. That obviously didn’t materialize. The seller may have been attracted by that potential but that doesn’t mean the sale did not do well for them. The work was acquired in 1996 before a major jump in Warhol prices. It’s likely the buyer paid much less than eight figures. The work was offered without a guarantee or an irrevocable bid. Sotheby’s team worked to line up buyers and just before the sale, the seller took a third-party guarantee. In the end, there were two bids below the $80 million ask. Those bids were in line with previous large disaster paintings. The sale surely netted the sellers a gain of $70 million or more. That’s not bad for a quarter-century investment. 


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