Impressionist and Modern Art Market Shows Signs of Growth

Impressionist and Modern Evening Art sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s saw growth in sold value compared to equivalent sales in 2016.

At Sotheby’s, the 21 June evening sale total was £127,945,750 ($161,326,796) — up 24% from £103,280,000 ($151,834,501), appearing to indicate a market lift. The sale saw sell-through rates of 74% by lot and 96% by value.

Auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkännen selling Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell), 1937-38. Sold for £36,005,000 ($45,834,362) against an estimate of £30,000,000.

At Christie’s, this year’s 27 June Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale was a remarkable 484% up on the equivalent sale in June 2016, realizing £129,500,000 ($13,678,080) against last year’s meagre £25,612,500 ($37,573,538) — a result that was attributed to market uncertainty ahead of the UK’s historic Brexit vote. The 2017 sale was 94% sold by lot and 87% sold by value.

Though Christie’s result was higher than Sotheby’s, it fell short of Christie’s own estimate of £141.3-191.7 million, with key high-value lots selling below estimate or failing to sell — as was the case with Egon Schiele’s sombre 1915 painting Individual Houses (with Mountains), which failed to attract a single bid.

This year’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale results saw Sotheby’s take 46% market share, while Christie’s took 54%. Both houses saw three works sell for over £20 million — previously unprecedented in any London auction — with market insiders noting strong participation from Asian buyers.

Million Pound Artworks Make up to 98% of Sale Totals

Artworks in excess of £1 million accounted for 95% of the total value of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, and 98% of Christie’s total value. At each house, top lots continued to drive the majority of the sale value.

At Sotheby’s, the million-pound threshold also came close to being crossed in the lower value Impressionist and Modern Art Day sale, which saw Henry Moore’s 1957 Reclining Figure sell for £932,750 ($1,181,945) against an estimate of £500,000-700,000 ($633,581-887,013). The result was a notable outlier in sales that saw the greatest number of lots sell between £100,000-500,000 (Sotheby’s) and £10,000-50,000 and £100,000-500,000 (Christie’s).

Sotheby’s Breaks Kandinsky Record — Twice

Wassily Kandinsky was the star of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, which saw the artist’s auction record broken, not once, but twice — first for the 1909 oil on canvas Murnau – landschaft mit grunem haus, which sold for £20,971,250 ($26,442,649) against an estimate of £15,000,000 – 25,000,000, then for the 1913 oil on canvas Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines), which sold for £33,008,750 ($41,620,733) against an undisclosed estimate.

A Record for German Expressionism at Christie’s

At Christie’s, Max Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell (1937–8) led the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale £36,005,000 ($45,834,365) — a new auction record for the artist and the highest price ever achieved at auction for a work of German Expressionism. The work, which reflects on the horrors of the Nazi regime, was purchased by dealer Larry Gagosian. Additional records were achieved at a lower price point for works by Georges Vantongerloo and Hannah Höch, both of which shot to £1,085,000, against estimates of £350,000-450,000 — £400,000-600,000 respectively.

The second highest-selling lot of the sale was Pablo Picasso’s Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse) (1934), which realized £34,885,000 ($44,408,60) — its estimate jumping from £25-40 million to £30-40 million just before the sale.

Sotheby’s Owns the Contemporary market

In March, Christie’s announced that it would be canceling its June Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening sales in a bid to boost consignments in October — a decision that significantly altered June’s sale landscape.

Despite its competitor’s withdrawal, Sotheby’s pushed ahead with its Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 28 June, which totaled a respectable £62,325,750 ($79,783,193) — a 20% increase on last year’s result, though far from the £130,376,500 ($204,730,218) achieved in 2015. The sale was 95% sold by lot and 98% sold by value.

Works by big-name American artists formed a core component of Sotheby’s sale, which was led by an untitled 1983 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, sold for £6,492,500 ($8,311,049) against an estimate of £4,000,000-6,000,000 ($5,120,400-7,680,600). Andy Warhol’s 1963-64Self-Portrait was the second highest selling work of the evening, exceeding an estimate of £5,000,000-7,000,000 ($6,400,500-8,960,700) to sell for £6,008,750 ($7,691,801).

Basquiat and Warhol appeared elsewhere in the top 10, with two collaboratively made works from the collection of Tommy Hilfiger soaring above their high estimates: Sweet Pungent(1984-5) sold for £4,433,750 ($5,675,643) against an estimate of £1,400,000-1,800,000, whileNew Flame (1985) sold for £2,408,750 ($3,083,441), estimated at £1,700,000-2,200,000.

Sotheby’s: Top 5 Contemporary Works

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1983, sold for £6,492,500 ($8,311,049) against an estimate of £4,000,000-6,000,000
  • Andy Warhol, Self Portrait, 1963-4, sold for £6,008,750 ($7,691,801) against an estimate of £5,000,000-7,000,000
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, Sweet Pungent, 1984-5, sold for £4,433,750 ($5,675,643) against an estimate of £1,400,000-1,800,000
  • Richard Prince, School Nurse, 2005, sold for £4,096,250 ($5,243,610) against an estimate of £3,500,000-4,500,000
  • Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (White Butterfly MPG 03), 2003, sold for £3,983,750 ($5,099,598) against an estimate of £3,000,000-4,000,000

A new record was set for Cecily Brown, whose 1998 oil on canvas The Girl who had Everything sold for £1,868,750 ($2,392,187) against an estimate of £800,000-1,200,000 ($1,024,080-1,536,120).

Phillips and Bonhams Make Gains in Contemporary Market

Christie’s decision not to host a sale this year allowed Post-War and Contemporary sales at second tier auctioneers Bonhams and Phillips to take greater prominence. Bonhams 29 June sale totaled £7,076,750 ($9,097,932), exceeding its high estimate of £6,720,500 with sell through rates of 95% by lot and 98% by value.

The result continues a trend of positive growth for Bonhams’ Post War & Contemporary Art department, which has grown by 294% in the last three years, with the average price per lot consistently above £100,000 in 2016 and 2017. The sale was led by Mark Bradford’s Dream Deferral, sold for £1,565,000 against an estimate of £1,000,000-1,500,000.

At Phillips, the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale was expected to realize between £17.9-25.4 million ($23.3-33 million) — its highest estimate in the house’s history. The sale came close to its target, realizing £24,373,000, with only two lots unsold. The top lot was Gerhard Richter’s, Abstrakes Bild (682-4), sold for £2,389,000 against an estimate of £2,200,00-2,800,000.

This year’s sales at Bonhams and Phillips saw a significant increase in guarantees; at Bonhams, six of the 10 top lots were guaranteed, representing 77 per cent of the sale’s low estimate. At Phillips, guarantees accounted for 65 per cent of the sale’s low estimate.

Picasso ‘Most Popular Artist’

The artist with the greatest number of lots across all Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sales was Picasso, who accounted for a total of 13 lots, seven of which exceeded £1 million, with 2 lots offered between £100,000-500,000, and four between £500,000-1,000,000.

Five of the top ten artists by value in this year’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sales achieved their ranking based on a single lot that sold in excess of £5,000,000: Max Beckmann, Joan Miró, Vincent van Gogh, Théo van Rysselberghe, Amedeo Modigliani.

Paintings Lead the Market

Paintings led Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s — both in terms of volume and price, accounting for 91% of the sales’ total value. Sculpture followed, with a total of four lots offered this season, accounting for 8% of the sales’ total value, though each selling for less than their mid-estimate. Works on paper represented 1% of the sales’ total value

The trend was reiterated in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale, where 30 of the 39 lots sold were paintings — accounting for 91% of the sale’s total value. Of these, 73% sold above mid estimate, with 20% falling below, and 7% remaining unsold. This was followed by sculpture, which represented 3% of the sale total.

Curated Sales Shift Figures

At both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, a shift to one-off ‘curated’ sales has shaped the picture of the Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary art market over the past two years.

In 2016, Christie’s celebrated its 250th anniversary with Defining British Art, a curated sale representing 250 years of British art history. Held on 30 June, the sale escaped the Brexit-induced plummet that affected the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale of 22 June — though also scooped up a selection of high-selling lots that might otherwise have boosted its total.

This year, Sotheby’s filtered many of its key Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary works into two stand-alone sales: Actual Size featured small-scale works by artists including contemporary sale favorite Lucian Freud, and totalled £20,931,250 ($26,392,213);Important Sculpture from the Bloch Family Collection achieved a ‘white glove’ result, with 100% of all lots offered sold. The sale featured sculpture by 20th century artists including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Alberto Giacometti.