Spring auction week tends to be a swirl of heartachingly beautiful works of art and mind-bendingly big prices. But it also serves a more practical purpose: setting the level of the art market. Is it strong overall or ailing? Were prices inflated, appropriate or low? Which artists broke out and which tanked?
On the face of it, the past week of New York sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips seemed solid, with the amount of art sold totaling nearly $2 billion at high sell-through rates. But compared to the stratosphere of the past few years, this series of auctions fell considerably short, with less exciting inventory, lower price points and some serious discounting.
“This week looked like ’08, where all of a sudden people are hunting for deals and you can get ’em,” said Neal Meltzer, a New York art adviser, adding that collectors were at the same time still willing to pay top dollar for unusual pieces by Klimt, Rousseau, Magritte and Bacon.
As a result, the art world is now confronting the idea that the market correction it has been bracing for is finally here. Its arrival, experts say, is largely due to fears about inflation, a limited supply of trophies and an excess of B+ artworks.
Some say this marks the return of some sanity, which is healthy and long overdue. “What we’ve experienced in recent years has not been a normal market environment,” said the art adviser Todd Levin. “The combination of printing money during Covid and until recently low interest rates resulted in a market bubble. Markets don’t melt upward indefinitely.”
What follows are a few key takeaways from the week, gleaned from sales data and from interviews with experts in the field.
Inflation Hampers Speculation
Volatile financial markets and rising interest rates left collectors with less liquidity and more timidity going into the auctions. That led to stingy bidding of $50,000 increments instead of the usual $100,000 or $1 million sweeps. Money problems were clear during the sale of the Gerald Fineberg collection at Christie’s. The auction went ahead without guarantees or irrevocable bids, leaving a clear view of a market stripped of the pre-established minimum bids that enable consignors and buyers to hedge their bets.
Many lots sold below their estimates. Even the night’s most expensive artwork, a 1993 Christopher Wool painting that went for $10 million, sold for only half its high estimate. Overall, the collection ended about $38.3 million behind the evening’s low estimate before accounting for buyers’ premiums.
“The path looks a little different this season because of a level of caution,” said Bonnie Brennan, Christie’s president for the Americas. “And you might see this year that sales are taking a little longer. It’s a great skill to pull those bids out.”
A Shortage of Masterpieces
Last spring, collectors battled over a 1964 portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol during a Christie’s auction that resulted in a staggering $195 million price tag, with buyers’ fees. The company proclaimed it one of the most expensive images of the 20th century. Experts said the sale demonstrated Warhol’s enduring hold on the art market — the gift that keeps on giving.
But this season, the famous pop artist barely made a blip. Christie’s sold a single Warhol during its evening sales, and it was a minor work depicting coffee cans that went for $2 million, about $500,000 shy of its high estimate. Sotheby’s, the world’s largest auction house, didn’t have a single work by the artist in its evening sales.
Auctioneers and market analysts said that it has become increasingly difficult to source great examples from modern masters like Warhol, Picasso and Lichtenstein. These artists have been mainstays in the blue-chip art world for so long that supply is drying up.
“It’s happening right now with Basquiat,” said Robert Manley, who helps lead the 20th century and contemporary art division at Phillips. “There are just fewer and fewer great Basquiats.
“It is a natural evolution of the market,” Manley continued. “Invariably, more and more of these artworks end up in museums and collections that don’t want to sell.”
Charles F. Stewart, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, agreed that the market was experiencing scarcity issues, pointing out that about $1 billion worth of Warhols have sold over the last five years — about 136 artworks between 2018 and 2022.
“Collectors who can hold onto them longer will,” Stewart said. “And when they do come, it will be a relatively small group of people who can afford them.”
Artworks that are not considered true prizes, however, will struggle to command high prices. “Any work of less than absolutely exceptional quality will require diminished pre-auction estimates,” Levin said. “It’s becoming a ‘garbage-or-masterpiece’ market.”
The Paul Allen Effect
Because of the strong results of last year’s Paul Allen sale at Christie’s — high estimates and big results — auction houses came into this season with aggressive estimates, in part to win new material in the first place. Then, at the last minute, the auction houses had to adjust to demand by lowering the reserve price, the minimum at which an item will sell.
“Going forward, auction houses will have to convince their consignors to either become radically realistic about pre-auction estimates, or suffer the indignity of being called at the eleventh hour for a greatly reduced reserve,” Levin said.
The Newhouse sale, by contrast, was more conservatively priced and ended up 100 percent sold, with the total above the mid estimate of the sale. The works were more cerebral including two — by de Kooning and Bacon — that made strong prices chased by several collectors
Flipping Art and Cashing In
It is no coincidence that Cecily Brown has a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now and that last week a Cecily Brown painting came up for auction. When an artist has a good year, her collectors have a great year. Simone Leigh, for example, has had a rapid rise that last year included representing the United States in the Venice Biennale, and she currently has an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, through Sept. 4.
That kind of buzz attracts the auction houses, where it can be lucrative for collectors to sell recent purchases for a quick payout. This practice of flipping artworks has become so common that it raises more eyerolls than eyebrows. So it was perhaps no surprise that one of Leigh’s 2019 “Stick” sculptures sold last week at Christie’s for $2.7 million (with buyers’ fees), a high price for the artist at auction.
Also at Christie’s was a 2020 painting by Danielle McKinney and a 2021 landscape by Emma Webster.
Dealers find such quick turnover dispiriting, as it can flood the market with artworks, creating oversupply and underselling or overshooting what’s directly on offer by the artist, reducing their ability to determine prices.
“We want to sell to stewards, not investors,” said the dealer Alexander Gray, who represents many older artists. “It destabilizes the primary market. This is why gallerists are so careful about whom we are selling to.”
During one of the season’s first major auctions — the S.I. Newhouse sale, on May 11 — Christie’s attempted to sell three paintings by the renowned abstract expressionist Jasper Johns. The artist had the momentum of two major exhibitions, at the Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that both ended late last year; however, his artworks in Christie’s sale failed to reach their low estimates. That appeared to shock consignors and collectors: three lots were withdrawn in the following Christie’s sale and 10 lots failed to sell.
Some market analysts and collectors theorized that Johns’s dip was the result of stingy bidding; others blamed the excessively high estimates at Christie’s; still others blamed oversupply. Bonnie Brennan, president of Christie’s Americas, insisted that there was a global appetite for paintings by the 93-year-old artist, and that they had not yet reached their top price.
But the larger trend after two weeks of auctions was perhaps about preferences in the market developing around new painters. McKinney, Webster and Rebecca Ackroyd, for example — each of whom sold well last week — are all in their 30s. “What happened was a reminder to people about how susceptible prices are to changes in taste,” said Doug Woodham, an art adviser and former Christie’s executive. “And taste changes are the predominant driver of long-term change in prices.”
The market has started experimenting with newer artists at lower estimates to capture the attention of buyers. “Auction houses used to shy away from untested art, especially in evening sales,” said Natasha Degan, chairwoman of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “This has changed dramatically.”
Of the 26 lots offered at Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, nearly a third were by artists born in the 80s or 90s. At the Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 80 percent of the lots were appearing in the auction market for the first time. These artists also often happen to be women and people of color, bringing diversity into a market that has historically catered to white male artists.
“For a fairly young generation there is a surprisingly large number of artists that are selling for very healthy prices,” said Manley. “Yes, a lot of them are younger artists and some of these paintings have only been executed in the last few years, but we reflect the demand.”
Many artists who might be unfamiliar in the auction world were rocketing past their estimates. That included a 2020 painting by Noah Davis that went for more than $900,000 with buyers’ fees at Phillips, almost seven times its high estimate.
“The classics are being re-evaluated,” Meltzer said, “because new classics are being integrated.”