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Quality and supply boost significant art auction sale growth

Fotini Xydas

By Fotini Xydas

Art Advisor, Art Advisory & Finance

November 22, 2017

Bolstered by a wealth of estate material this season, Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold a staggering $749 million of Impressionist & Modern art over two consecutive evening auctions, which took place on 13 and 14 November in New York. Christie’s realized $479 million, its highest total since 2007 for an equivalent auction, and double that of last year’s sale ($246 million), while Sotheby’s total rose 71% to $269 million over last year ($157 million). Both auction houses had significantly higher sell-through rates, with only 8% of works going unsold at Sotheby’s and 12% at Christie’s. No less than eight new artist auction records were set for Fernand Léger, Marc Chagall, René Magritte, Emile Nolde, Édouard Vuillard, Man Ray, Suzanne Duchamp and Vilhelm Hammershøi. The sales made clear that the Impressionist & Modern art category, far from dormant, remains in high demand among top collectors when they are presented with adequate quality and supply.

An iconic Van Gogh of a Ploughman in the Fields, painted from the artist’s window at the asylum of Saint-Rémy, sold for $81.3 million, just shy of the $82.5 million auction record price achieved in 1990 by Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet. The stunning Léger, Contraste de formes, considered among the greatest works by the artist remaining in private hands, was pursued by three bidders who helped catapult the price past the artist’s previous auction record of $39 million to $70 million. The Léger had been on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2014. Magritte’s hallmark painting The Dominion of Light, once belonging to Nelson Rockefeller, sold for $20.5 million, an auction record price for the artist. It was also a big season for Monet, with five paintings sold among both auction houses, the most beautiful of which captured the light effects of sheets of ice melting along the Seine—Les Glaçons, Bennecourt elicited fierce bidding from at least three buyers, ultimately selling for $23.3 million. What accounted for the significant growth in sales over the equivalent auctions last year? The greatest contributing factor was a drastic rise in supply, fueled by the number of collections and estates secured for sale—the collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, The Stanford Z. Rothschild, Jr. Collection and estate of William Kelly Simpson at Christie’s, and the collections of Martin and Barbara Zweig and Diamonstein-Spielvogel at Sotheby’s, to name a few.  In 2016, collectors were particularly cautious and reluctant to put works up for sale given the uncertainties surrounding the US presidential elections and effects of Brexit. In marked contrast, collectors in 2017 have indicated a renewed confidence in the market and interest in selling.

A further consideration on the part of perspective sellers is the anticipated sale of the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, slated to be sold at Christie’s beginning in the spring of 2018. Although details have yet to be released, the immense collection consisting of 2,000 items estimated at $700 million is expected to become the most valuable collection ever auctioned—this news urged some sellers to get ahead of the Rockefeller material. Further luring sellers this season was Sotheby’s and Christie’s more lenient use, as compared with last year, of financial guarantees (a promise to a seller of a minimum sale price regardless of the auction’s outcome), provided by the auction houses themselves, more commonly by third-parties, or a combination of the two. At Sotheby’s, 40% of the evening sale works (26 of 64) benefited from some form of financial guarantee.

Finally, the strong buying power of Asian collectors was palpable at both auctions. Auction house specialists representing Asian clients in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan were noted bidding on a number of top works in the sales. Sotheby’s confirmed that five of the top ten works sold in its evening sale went to Asian clients, and the Van Gogh masterpiece noted above sold to a Christie’s representative for Asia. Collectors from the US, Europe and Russia were also active buyers and reflect the increasingly global nature of the art market. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the season was the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s Postwar & Contemporary art auction on 15 November for an astonishing $450.3 million, a record price for any work of art ever sold on the public or private market. 

Image Source: Vincent Van Gogh, Labourer dans un champ (Ploughman in the Fields)  Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017

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