“Though it is now late in the typical calendar of sales, it is clear that the market has not gone on vacation,” Barker said after the sale, adding that the result “represented a resounding vote of confidence” in the art market. And certainly the sale performed admirably, with nearly two-thirds (42) of the 65 lots on offer selling for hammer prices above their low estimates.
However, internal and external signals suggest that confidence in the art market has its limits. The withdrawal of the night’s second-biggest lot—the Bacon painting that was expected to bring as much as £18 million ($23.1 million)—may only attest to one consignor’s apprehensions. But it may also reflect broader concerns about the resilience of the art market as COVID-19 continues to batter economies.
One recent report found
the total take of auctions at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s through July 10th this year represented a 49 percent drop from the equivalent period last year. All three auction houses have now conducted relatively successful high-value virtual sales, but the prices achieved and volume of works being sold still represent a major dip from business as usual (although, notably, all three have seen exceptionally strong results
from their Hong Kong sales). All three houses also relied on guarantees and irrevocable bids to help ensure the success of their marquee virtual sales; nine of the lots in the “Rembrandt to Richter” sale had been guaranteed to achieve a minimum price, including the leading Miró and Rembrandt works.
As the art market heads into a summer vacation season like no other, auction house staff will likely be working hard as ever, lining up major consignments for the fall, fine tuning their online platforms, and hoping their client base stays interested in buying and selling art as COVID-19 cases continue to surge and businesses shutter en masse around the world.