Perhaps incentivized by a weak pound, Asian bidders were out in full force across all the London sales, which were held three weeks later than usual to avoid a clash with the Lunar New Year holiday. At the Christie’s sale of Impressionist and Modern works, Asia-based representatives bought around half of the 14 works, which had been consigned by German philanthropist Barbara Lambrecht.
At the Sotheby’s post-war and contemporary evening sale on March 8th, the most expensive lot, ’s Eisberg
(Iceberg) (1982), sold on the phone to a bidder from Asia for £17.7 million with fees. “There’s a lot of Asian interest in Richter,
,” said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner Gallery, which represented Baselitz from 1963 to 2000. Collectors from Asia “do their research well,” he said.
Sotheby’s was keen to push the strength of its German artists, a strategy that paid off. The 15 works by German artists in the sale nearly doubled their combined pre-sale estimate of £26.7 million to sell for £48.1 million. There were records for the photographer
and for Baselitz, whose Mit Roter Fahne
(1965) sold after a single phone bid to the guarantor for £7.5 million with fees. The work carried a pre-sale estimate of £6.5–£8.5 million.
“We haven’t seen a group of artists like it since the
,” VeneKlasen said.
Overall Sotheby’s made £118 million with fees, against an upper estimate of £112.6 million. The result represents a 70% increase from last year’s sale.
Sotheby’s used guarantees more liberally than in the past for this series of London sales. Fifteen of the 61 lots on offer were guaranteed either by Sotheby’s or by a third party. Sales of those works made up 46.6% of the evening’s value, or £55 million. Last year just four lots were guaranteed with a combined low value of £3.8 million.
Christie’s was more sparing with its guarantees in its contemporary sale, which made a total of £96.4 million with fees (est. £67.6–£101.6 million), up 65% from last year’s total. Guarantees represented £14.6 million or 21.6% of the overall value of the sale compared with £15 million or just under 30% in February 2016.
Francis Outred, Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe, said the house has been “cautious” with guarantees over the past two years. “Sellers want to see the real marketplace. They tend to only want guarantees if expectations are ambitious,” he said.
Some in the trade say guarantees can inhibit the potential value of a work. “The market responds better to works that have not been guaranteed,” said London dealer Omer Tiroche
. “It may also be detrimental to buyers to think that the higher you bid the more the auction house’s cut—which is already too high—increases.”
Matt Carey-Williams, deputy chairman at Phillips, Europe and Asia, said there is a shift away from guarantees at the auction house partly because clients are opting for other financial tools such as enhanced hammer deals. Phillips guaranteed four out of 30 lots in its March 8th sale, down from 11 in 2016.
Phillips made £14.7 million with fees against an estimate of £13.3–£19.2 million. After the sale, Edward Dolman, Phillips’s chairman and chief executive, acknowledged that the house could have been “a bit more aggressive” with guarantees.
“The market seems solid and predictable,” he said.
After a year of uncertainty, the art market does indeed seem more solid, impervious even to the threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump. Some dealers cite the political changes as having a positive impact.
“Brexit invited more bidding from America, while Trump only seemed to strengthen the markets so people felt richer,” Tiroche said. It now remains to be seen how the bellwether contemporary auctions in New York in May fare under the new administration.