London Auctions Bound Past Expectations—But Is the Art Market Really Back?
Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
The white glove sale at Christie’s of 44 works from the personal collection of the respected art dealer Leslie Waddington on Tuesday set the pace for a successful week of contemporary sales in London. After a difficult summer consigning works against a backdrop of Brexit, a tumbling pound, and uncertainty over the impending U.S. presidential election, the auction houses approached the season with caution—in many cases offering works with enticingly low estimates.
For the most part, the move paid off. Specialists at Christie’s said that 80% of works in the Waddington auction sold above their estimates, something that had not been witnessed since the single-owner sale of another legendary art dealer, Ernst Beyeler. Bidders from 37 countries pushed the total well above the pre-sale estimate of £11.9–£18.5 million to fetch £28.3 million (all prices and totals include buyer’s premium).
Conservative estimates also lured bidders at the auction house’s contemporary evening sale two days later. Last October’s sale at Christie’s carried double the estimate of this year’s auction, but achieved a very similar result. “We were chasing unusual material during a difficult summer and we always felt we had to keep the estimates attractive to galvanize bidding,” said Francis Outred, the house’s head of post-war and contemporary art, Europe. The auction flew above its estimate (£14.9 million–£21.8 million), making £34.3 million with fees, and sported a robust sell-through rate of 90%.
Adrian Ghenie, Nickelodeon, 2008. Image courtesy of Christie’s.
Rebuffing speculation that the bottom has dropped out of the market for young and emerging artists, two of the seven records at Christie’s were for artists under 40:
Speculation continues as to whether Brexit will harm or help the London trade, but the consensus is that foreigners were incentivized to bid at this week’s auctions as the pound slumped to a 31-year low. “If the Ghenie had sold last year for £7 million, it would have converted to $12 million; this year it was $9 million,” Outred points out. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips all noted strong bidding from Asia, the U.S., and Europe.
Newport Street Gallery in south London to display works from his collection appears to be boosting his own career.
Two Hirst canvases—one, Salvation (2003), covered in butterflies, the other, Damnation (2004), covered in flies—both doubled their estimates at Christie’s to sell for £665,000 and £485,000, respectively. The Los Angeles-based dealer and artist agent Stefan Simchowitz bought both works on behalf of a client. “Damien’s market has found its bottom as people have had the opportunity to collect him at more affordable prices, as it should be,” Simchowitz says. “It can now stabilize and regain its strength.” An early spot painting from 1992, painted by Hirst himself rather than one of his assistants, sold at Phillips on Wednesday for £509,000 (est. £300,000–500,000).
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Further boosting market confidence, Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale also vaulted over its pre-sale estimate of £24.1–32.7 million to fetch £48 million with fees on Friday. The sell-through-rate was a strong 91%. The result was largely buoyed by a trio of high-flying paintings, including a garish oil stick and acrylic canvas by
The other two paintings to soar above estimate on the night were
Phillips was the only auction house to not surpass its upper pre-sale estimate. Its Wednesday sale mustered a decent total of £17.9 million (est. £14.2–20.5 million), with 94% sold by value. The result represents an almost 50% drop in value from last year’s sale. Phillips is known for specializing in emerging art, but the market for a type of quasi-minimalist abstract art—coined “zombie formalism” by the critic Walter Robinson—dried up towards the end of last year when prices, which had been astronomical in 2014, crashed back down to earth. The auction house has followed suit and artists such as
Photo courtesy of Phillips.
Indeed, there were few emerging artists in this week’s sale at Phillips. A 2004 work by
Meanwhile, the Italian sales declined dramatically at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s this year. Christie’s had a tough act to follow after a record auction last October, when 90% of lots sold for £43.2 million including premium, the highest-ever total for an Italian sale and £7.6 million more than the post-war and contemporary evening sale the same night. This year’s 59-lot sale achieved a total of £18.7 million. The equivalent sale at Sotheby’s made £23.3 million (est £19.7–27.9 million).
All in all it was a reassuring week for the trade in London, with many noting the market is moving in the right direction. “The market is healthy and no longer overweight. It was back to business as usual under more normal conditions,” Simchowitz says.