Sotheby’s reported public auction art sales in 2016 of $4.1 billion, slightly below Christie’s $4.4 billion and the second consecutive fall since its record year in 2014, when it raked in $6.1 billion. Sotheby’s did about $583 million in private sales last year.
Overall sales in the global art market were estimated at slightly under $57 billion
in 2016, according to The Art Market | 2017, a report published recently by Art Basel and UBS. But last year saw auction sales fall precipitously, especially in the U.S. and U.K., dropping by 26% worldwide as ultra-high end sales (works priced above $10 million) slid even more steeply.
Market observers chalked up the lack of choice consignments to political and economic turbulence, citing lack of supply, not demand, for the middling results. At least two art market reports described a shift of sales activity to the dealer sector, where the priciest works could be shopped around more discreetly.
At times this week the auctions felt closer to a series of private sales being carried out in public, as those backroom dealings can dampen bidding in the room. Many of the highlighted lots with estimates in the high single-digit millions were backed by third-party guarantees, and subsequently got hammered down after a few bids.
Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac said it was increasingly common for auction houses to map out interested buyers ahead of the sale, a practice that leaves less room for the theatrics of this bloodless trophy-hunting of the ultrarich.
“They will know a lot [of what will happen] before the auction starts,” he said, referring to the auction house specialists.
Thursday’s bidding war for the Basquiat created a jubilant mood among Sotheby’s staff, who later drank Japanese whiskey and posed in front of the painting, Barker with gavel in hand.
He said the wooden gavel, slightly chipped and bearing the patina of age, was handed down from his father. It’s a lucky one, having knocked its way through several of his most successful auctions, including two high-profile Damien Hirst sales, “Pharmacy” and “Beautiful in My Mind Forever.” Thursday night it seemed especially lucky.