A total of $1.8 billion worth of art was sold across six days during the New York November auction season. Including one major private collection sale, that of the travel entrepreneur Barney Ebsworth, the sales saw Christie’s come out on top with the highest sale total of around $955 million across all three evening sales. However, Sotheby’s proved stronger in the Contemporary evening sale category and achieved a higher percentage of lots sold above the mid estimate, demonstrating their specialists more accurate pricing strategies.
New auction records
A number of records were broken across all auction houses, most notably the David Hockney at $90.3 million for the sale of an artwork by a living artist and Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929) at $92 million, as part of Christie’s Ebsworth Collection auction. Other record prices included: Arshile Gorky ($14 million), Carmen Herrera ($2.6 million), Amy Sillman ($855,000), Dana Schutz ($795,000) and Leon Polk Smith ($336,500). For a more in-depth review, Marion Maneker delves into auction prices in his Art Market Monitor’s overview of the sale week.
Underneath the Hockney Record Price, a Market Barely Keeping Up by Art Market Monitor
Sotheby’s and Christie’s contrasting sales
The November sale week revealed very different approaches between the two houses. For the Impressionist and Modern sales, Sotheby’s offered a strong German Expressionist group whilst Christie’s went for a more traditional approach with fourteen Picassos and other typical Impressionist mainstays including Monet and Van Gogh. For the Contemporary sales, Sotheby’s chose to focus on very commercial mid-level works and Christie’s brought classic blue-chip trophy works with robust estimates. Morgan Long, Senior Director of The Fine Art Group highlighted that ‘what has become clear is that there is a lot of competition between the auction houses to be winning material versus winning the numbers’.
A number of works included in last week’s sales were museum de-acquisitions including The Whitney’s Adolph Gottlieb, three Georgia O’Keeffe works from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (which netted a combined $23.3 million at Sotheby’s as reported by Artnet news) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago’s Mark Rothko. These works, in the context of the Chicago Public Library’s decision to withdraw the sale of their $10-15 million Kerry James Marshall work prompted debate over the principles surrounding public institutions selling artworks, even if the proceeds will go to fund new acquisitions or public projects.
Strong day sales indicate strength in middle market
The most competitive bidding of the week was for lots in mid-level price brackets, with several works consistently exceeding high estimates exemplified by the sale of Suzy Frelinghuysen’s Composition at $552,500 (which hurtled past its estimate of $120,000 – $180,000). This tactic contributed to Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale reaching the high end of its pre-sale total. Senior Director, Morgan Long commented in the Art Newspaper ‘I haven’t seen a sale with that much activity in ages, both in the room and on the phones’.
African American artists sweep Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale in New York by The Art Newspaper
This was compounded by excellent sell through rates for the day sales which traditionally have works in this price bracket. Phillips had their strongest 20th Century day sale ever in New York; Long elaborates that the day sales are ‘a really good indicator of the strength of the market’.
By contrast several top lots at the higher end of the market went unsold including the $30 million Marsden Hartley at Sotheby’s, the $40 million Van Gogh at Christie’s and some major paintings such as the de Menil Collection’s Rothko at Christie’s which sold under the low estimate at $32 million, reflecting a more discerning collector base at these high price levels. It will be interesting to see how the Ebsworth Collection Hockney painting performs in London in March 2019, in a very different, pre-Brexit climate.
“You can’t say the market isn’t healthy when the auction houses shifted more than $2bn of art overall. They are probably pretty pleased with the way the week went, without being too excited.”
Guy Jennings, Manageing Director of The Fine Art Group, quoted by Melanie Girlis in The Financial Times
Has the art market found its limit? by The Financial Times
Presale estimates and sale results