London's main auction houses recorded a significant decline compared with last year's sales as investors are adopting a wait-and-see position. However, the current situation benefits the private market, which is remaining very strong at the beginning of this year.
Last week's sales at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips in London were not exactly a real success. Indeed, the 3 auction houses brought in a total of £209 million* ($275 million), which is less than two thirds of last year's results.
Sotheby's grossed the highest revenue with £93.3 ($123 million) million worth of sales thanks to a few important lots. Among them are a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for £8.2 million ($10.8 million), a large-scale canvas by Jenny Saville which reached £5.4 million ($7.1 million) and a rare 1958 portrait by Lucian Freud (£5.8 million or $7.6 million).
As for Christie's, the sales volume decreased by more than 40% compared with last year's February auctions, with a total of £79.3 million (104.1 million), far below last year's £137.5 million. David Hockney was definitely the star of the sale, as his double portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott sold for £37,6 million ($49 million), which amounts to almost half of Christie's total revenue for this auction.
A handful of other pieces drew the attention of the bidders, such as a painting by Nicolas de Stael (£4.5 million or $5.89 million), a work by Cecily Brown (£3.1 million or $4 million) and an oil on canvas by Adrian Ghenie (£2.6 million or $3.4 million).
Last but not least, Phillips brought in a dull £36.4 million ($47.7 million), which is only a bit more than a third of last year's staggering £97.8 million ($135 million). The most important lot of this auction, a 1963 photo painting called "Jet Fighter", which sold for £15.5 million ($20.3 million), might not even have been presented. Indeed, it was offered in New York in 2016 and sold to a Chinese businessman for $24 million... who never paid for the lot. The auction house ended up losing $3.7 million with the new sale of this painting.
This relative decline can be explained by the smaller number of exceptional lots presented by the 3 main houses. But the proportion of bought-in lots was very low this year, which shows that the market remains vigorous.
Besides these disappointing results, the sales were marked by an increasing number of guaranteed works. This system, which allows auction houses to sign a pre-sale agreement with a third party who commits to acquire a piece at its low estimate in case it was bought in, was overused during the last auctions. Indeed, more than half of Sotheby's lots were acquired this way, which means than the sale was almost already done before it even begun.
But Sotheby's was not the only one to rely on this system, as 66% of Christie's total low estimate value was also guaranteed. This phenomenon seems to reflect the current hesitation on the market. In order to minimize the number of bought-in lots, auction houses tend to lean heavily on that crutch; but it is not a positive signal for the future.
Despite these worrying figures, it should be noted that February and March sales are usually much less important than May or November sessions, which we are looking forward to. Last but not least, the current auction slowdown will undoubtedly benefit the private market.
Furthermore, a wind of renewal began to blow on these auctions as new young artists made a remarkable entrance during the evening sales, from which they were absent not so long ago. The vast majority are African-American artists whose market has been consolidated over the last few years. Among them, there is Henry Taylor who had 4 of his works presented at each auction house, one of which was sold at Sotheby's for more than 2 times its high estimate, at $300,000.
Some of these artists, such as Tschabalala Self and Jordan Casteel, both female African-American painters, are not yet 30. The former, who was making her auction debut at Phillips, sold one of her paintings, which was also the first lot presented by the auction house, for $163,000. As for the latter, she broke her auction record at Christie's with a $393,000 painting.
In the meantime, artists who were once the stars of contemporary art evening sales such as Christopher Wool or Rudolph Stingel have been running out of steam lately as their market keeps stagnating. Indeed, both collectors and institutions of the art world seem to be looking for something different, which is embodied by a new generation of artists whose vision is more aligned with today's society.
*all the prices in this article include Premium