What Do Contemporary Day Sales Tell Us About the Current Market?

Last week more than 20 lots sold for $1 million each.

Andy Warhol, The American Indian (Russell Means) (1976) Courtesy Sotheby's

It’s no secret that volume is down sharply in the auction market right now as compared with previous peak years. Overall totals at the major houses have clearly come back to earth, with volume coming in under $300 million at the evening contemporary sales at individual houses, compared with peak period heights—such as Christie’s $692 million evening sale just three years ago in November 2013.

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Mehretu
Julie Mehretu, Excerpt citadel (2003) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Richard Prince, Neighbor's Wife (1989) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd,
Prince
Richard Prince, Neighbor's Wife (1989) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd,
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1983) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Richter
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1983) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (HIWO) (2015) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Kusama
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (HIWO) (2015) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Wesselmann
Tom Wesselmann Still Life No. 47 (1964) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Robert Motherwell Untitled (In Orange with Charcoal Lines) (DATE) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Motherwell
Robert Motherwell Untitled (In Orange with Charcoal Lines) (circa 1970) Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.
Helen Frankenthaler, Under April Mood (1974) Courtesy Sotheby's
Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler, Under April Mood (1974) Courtesy Sotheby's
Warhol
Andy Warhol, The American Indian (Russell Means) (1976) Courtesy Sotheby's
Francis
Sam Francis Composition (1954) Courtesy of Sotheby's
Bourgeoius
Louise Bourgeois Fée Couturière (1963/83) Conceived in 1963 and cast in 1983. Courtesy of Sotheby's
Takamatsu
Jiro Takamatsu, Shadow No. 1391 (1997) Courtesy Phillips
Keith Haring, Untitled (1983) Courtesy of Phillips
Haring
Keith Haring, Untitled (1983) Courtesy of Phillips
Albers
Josef Albers, After Nightfall (1948-1953) Courtesy of Phillips
McCracken
John McCracken, Chieftain (1992) Courtesy of Phillips

The same holds true for the day auctions of lower-priced work that always follow the blockbuster evening sales. Volume is down across the board.

And yet, as most experts note, these sales—which largely lack the hype, guarantees, and other financial wheeling and dealing of big ticket lots—offer a much better barometer of the health of the art market, showing robust sell-through rates on material priced mostly under $1 million.

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Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale on November 16 pulled in $61.2 million, down from last year’s total of $88.8 million. Of 334 lots on offer, 262, or 78 percent, were sold. Among records at Christie’s were: Bruce Connor’s Cannabis Collage  which realized $631,500 nearly doubling the high $350,000 estimate;  Harold Ancart, whose Untitled tryptich sold for $751,600, soaring over the the high estimate of $120,000, and Aaron Garber-Maikovska’s Untitled (Triptych), realized $125,000.

Phillips sale on Thursday November 17, realized $9.8 million, just a notch down from $10.5 million last year. Of 139 lots offered, 109, or 78 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 83 percent sold. In comparison, last year’s day sale included 221 lots, whereas this year’s auction offered 139, indicating a higher average price per lot at the latest auction.

Phillips top lot, Jiro Takamatsu, Shadow No. 1391 (1997), which shattered its $100–150,000 estimate to sell for $538,000, was also a new auction record for the artist. Among other records set at Phillips were a new auction high for Mel Bochner, whose mixed-media Blah Blah Blah (2012) sold for $137,500, as well as the $106,250 paid for Sue Williams’ Big Red Shoes (1998).

Sotheby’s contemporary day sale on Friday, November 18, capped off the week on a strong note. Though the $80.2 million was down from $97.6 million last year, it cleared the high estimate and was also the highest total of the three houses. A total of 15 auction records were achieved, a strong 13 of which were for individual artists, while two were genre-specific works-on-paper, high points for artists Adrian Ghenie and Ellsworth Kelly. Of 313 lots on offer, 269, or 86 percent, were sold. By value, the auction realized 90.9 percent.

Additionally, new records were set for artists including Deborah Butterfield, Amy Sillman, Paulina Olowska, Matias Faldbakken, Laura Owens, Imran Qureshi, Khalif Kelly, Despina Stokou, Scott Olson, Andrew Schoultz, Alyson Shotz, Tim Gardner, and Betye Saar.

The number of lots sold for over $1 million each was 25, albeit down from 37 last year, is a solid reflection of demand nonetheless.


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