Soon after the hammer came down on the final lot of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale, a breaking news banner flashed on Bloomberg's homepage: “Bear Market Descends on Global Stocks.” Given the grim economic circumstances, the sale, which included 62 lots totaling $84.1 million was a success, and indeed the last two weeks of Impressionist, modern, postwar, and contemporary art auctions in London could reasonably be considered...decent. The sell-through rates (how many lots in the auction sold) were more than adequate, the final tallies fell reasonably within estimate, and, with a few notable exceptions, the big lots sold.
It’s only when you compare this year’s top 10 lots with last year’s that the difference becomes starkly apparent: The art market of 2016 is shaping up to be very different than the art market of 2015. Last year, the collective top 10 lots of the Impressionist, modern, postwar, and contemporary London sales totaled $249.24 million. This year, the total was $160.2 million— almost a $90 million dollar decline. Last year’s top lot was a giant abstract painting by Gerhard Richter, which sold for $46 million; this year’s top lot, as you’ll see below, was a painting by Pablo Picasso, which sold for $27 million, almost $13 million less than when it sold at Sotheby's New York in 2013. Last year, seven of the 10 top lots sold for more than $20 million; this year, there were just two.
Does this mean that the art market is in trouble, or simply that, as multiple insiders say, collectors have simply become more selective, passing on over-hyped paintings for more reasonably priced art? Anyone who claims to have the answer is either lying or about to make a huge amount of money. Apropos of which, check out the top 10 lots from the London sales below.
1. Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme, $27,144,549
2. Lucian Freud, Pregnant Girl, $23,214,243
3. August Rodin, Iris, Messagere Des Dieux, $16,662,805
4. Claude Monet, Le Palais Ducal Vu de Saint Georges Majeur, $16,662,805
5. Peter Doig, The Artist's Home in the Ravine, $16,337,061
6. Henri Matisse, La Leçon de Piano, $15,534,002
7. Alberto Burri, Sacco E Rosso, $13,172,525
8. Egon Schiele, Selbstbildnis Mit Gespreizten Fingern, $10,433,470
9. Marc Chagall, Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, $10,111,134
10. Jean Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Head of Madman) $8,961,482