Art Auctions Slide to $8.1 Billion as Picasso, Monet Dominate

Water Lilies by Monet
A signed Claude Monet, dated 1905, sold for $54 million. Source: Sotheby’s via Bloomberg

Global art auctions cooled in the first half of 2015 but collectors chasing Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Andy Warhol ignored the slowdown.

Auction results slid 5.8 percent to $8.1 billion from the same period in 2014 because of weak sales in China, the U.K., France and Germany, according to figures released Wednesday by New York-based Artnet. Yet prices soared for trophy works as a smaller number of high value transactions dominated.

Sales haven’t declined in the first half of the year since 2013, when global auctions fell 1.4 percent to $7.2 billion, according to Artnet. They have climbed since, with a record $2.7 billion of art sold in May in New York. While the pace of growth slowed this year, it’s not the start of a market downturn, advisers and auction executives said.

“It was an incredibly explosive first half and people need a break,” said Wendy Cromwell, an adviser at New York-based Cromwell Art, adding that she doesn’t believe there’s a “sea change” in prices for the broader market.

Auctions in China declined 32 percent to $1.5 billion in the first half, according to Artnet. The U.S. ranked first, with $3.4 billion in sales, comprising 42 percent of the total.

“New York is really where most of the activity is,” said Michael Plummer, a principal at advisory firm Artvest Partners in New York. “Europe is slow because of the Greek problem and problems in other European economies. China is having its own issues and Russia is having issues.”

Top Lots

The top 10 lots were auctioned in May in New York, with Christie’s handling eight of them. Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger, (Version ‘O’),” was the top lot at $179.4 million, followed by Alberto Giacometti’s “Pointing Man” sculpture for $141.3 million. Sotheby’s sold Vincent van Gogh’s “L’Allee des Alyscamps” for $66.3 million and Monet’s “Nympheas” for $54 million.

The top 10 artists at auction sold more than $2 billion of works in the first half, according to Artnet. Picasso topped the list with $441 million in sales, which was bolstered by “Les Femmes.”

Monet followed with $289 million in sales. Warhol was third with $288 million. Giacometti, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Joan Miro and Jean-Michel Basquiat rounded out the top 10, respectively. Richter is the only living artist in that group.

Yayoi Kusama was the highest-ranking female artist, at 49th place, with $28.7 million in sales.

“The high end of the market performed particularly well, as has been the case for a few years now,” Jacob Pabst, Artnet’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mail.

Slower Growth

Christie’s said Monday that sales of art and collectibles at the London-based auction house rose to a record 2.9 billion pounds ($4.5 billion) in the first six months of the year.

The figure was a 7.4 percent gain in pounds but was flat in dollar terms. The total didn’t keep pace with the 12 percent increase in the same period in 2014 over the previous year. Stephen Brooks, global chief operating officer of Christie’s, said in a phone interview Monday that it’s not the start of a decline in the broader market or at Christie’s.

“We’re at the highest levels we’ve ever seen,” Brooks said. “It’s pretty solid, consistent growth across a range of regions and types of art.”

Buying Opportunity

Sotheby’s said its preliminary sales for the first half were $3.2 billion, the same total for the period last year. The tally doesn’t include some sales in London or private sales, the New York-based auction house said. Sotheby’s said it will release full sales in August.

Collectors buy trophy works for the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own them,” said Artvest’s Plummer.

“Prices are so high it is unlikely that they will appreciate as much and offer the same sort of returns to the new owners,” he said.

Picasso’s $179.4 million “Les Femmes” became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. It last appeared on the block in 1997, selling for $31.9 million.

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