London Auctions Bound Past Expectations—But Is the Art Market Really Back?
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%.
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: Adrian Ghenie and Lucy McKenzie. Ghenie’s Nickelodeon (2008) sparked a bidding contest among at least six hopefuls, rising to almost five times its high estimate of £1.5 million to sell to a European buyer for £7.1 million, a new record for the artist. The Austrian dealer Thaddaeus Ropac was an underbidder. Outred says the key with young artists is to keep the estimates attractive. “People have got tired of the estimates for some of the young and more fashionable names,” he says.
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.
Damien Hirst was one of the hits of the week; some in the trade have predicted that his market is poised for a comeback. Prices for the YBA’s works hit rock bottom during the recession, but the opening earlier this year of Hirst’s 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).
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 Jean-Michel Basquiat that failed to sell at Sotheby’s in New York 11 months ago. Hannibal, painted in the artist’s golden year of 1982, was the most expensive work sold at auction this week, going to a telephone bidder for £10.6 million (est. £3.5–4.5 million). Dealers said the work was around 25% cheaper in sterling than it was six months ago.
The other two paintings to soar above estimate on the night were Peter Doig’s Grasshopper (1990), which sold on the telephone to Sotheby’s Asia-based specialist Jasmine Chen for £5.9 million (est. £2.8–3.5 million), and an early and unusual Gerhard Richter painting in two parts, Garten (1982), which went for £10.2 million (est. £3–4 million). Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art for Sotheby’s in Europe, says there are pocket of Richter’s oeuvre, such as works from the early 1980s, that are still undervalued. “Garten found the right level on the night,” he says.
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 Dan Colen and Lucien Smith have duly dropped off its books.
Indeed, there were few emerging artists in this week’s sale at Phillips. A 2004 work by Alex Israel was withdrawn prior to the auction, while a 2008 spray painting by Sterling Ruby was bought in at £340,000 (est £400,000–600,000). The top lot was Andy Warhol’s 20 Pink Mao’s (1979), which sold for £4.7 million (est £4–6 million). The work was one of four in the sale to be backed by an anonymous third party guarantee. “The froth that was in the market that was driving optimistic estimates has gone,” said Ed Dolman, the chief executive of Phillips.
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.