In Gun-Shy Art Market, Bellwether Auctions Decline More Than 50%

  • Major spring sales tally $1.1 billion in five days in New York
  • Christie’s Impressionist and modern works total $141.5 million

As auction houses wrapped up five days of sales in New York on Thursday, dealers were eager to point out the bright spots.

Records for major artists were set. Spirited bidding broke out when high-quality works had attractive estimates. Some collectors went on shopping sprees. And most auction totals reached their presale targets.

Except there just wasn’t a lot for sale. With only two smaller auctions remaining, $1.1 billion has changed hands during this week’s bellwether Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, a drop of more than 50 percent from a year earlier. In dollar terms, the volume slumped by $1.6 billion -- more than the entire amount sold in a similar round of auctions in 2012.

“The volumes are down hugely,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive officer of Fine Art Fund Group in London. “People were not prepared to consign major works after the January collapse of the stock market. Everyone was worried if they would be able to sell.”

Their decision seemed prescient when Sotheby’s on May 9 suffered its worst showing at the evening sale of Impressionist and modern art since the 2009 recession. A third of the lots failed to find buyers.

Confidence Boost

By Thursday night, a dose of confidence had returned, following two auctions of postwar and contemporary art where a 40-year-old Japanese billionaire spent $98 million on blue-chip works, setting records for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Richard Prince.

“There’s money and there’s willingness,” said Michaela de Pury, a private art dealer based in London, who bought a $15.4 million painting by Cy Twombly for a client at Sotheby’s on Wednesday. Auction houses “need to focus on getting in triple-A works at good prices. Then the market would do very well.”

Christie’s concluded the week’s evening sales with a lineup of 51 lots of Impressionist and modern art. Thursday’s auction totaled $141.5 million, a 30 percent drop from the similar event a year ago and its smallest evening sale in the category in New York in four years.

The mood was muted compared with the packed contemporary sales earlier in the week, where top collectors and dealers rubbed shoulders with celebrities such as heiress Paris Hilton and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio. There were plenty of empty seats in the Rockefeller Center salesroom.

“Amazing change in the atmosphere from sale to sale,” said Hugo Nathan, an art adviser based in London. “This feels like an Old Masters auction.”

Water Lilies

The top lot was Claude Monet’s late painting of water lilies “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” which fetched $27 million, within the expected range. The buyer was Gladwell & Patterson gallery of London, whose representative sat in the front row next to a group of Asian men. The gallery acquired the painting on behalf of a client, Christie’s said.

Frida Kahlo’s small 1939 oil-on-metal landscape with two female nudes sold for $8 million, at the low estimate, setting an auction record for the Mexican artist. Prices include buyer’s commissions; estimates don’t.

Asian collectors were active, chasing works by a diverse range of artists, from stalwarts such as Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to more unexpected choices like British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French painter Georges Braque. Hepworth’s egg-shaped form fetched $5.4 million, three times the high estimate. Braque’s 1941 still life with a banjo sold for $10.2 million, also surpassing the high target of $9 million.

While many works fell short of their low estimates when the hammer fell, 86 percent of the lots ended up selling. The evening’s seven unsold lots included two by Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. One, depicting a semi-naked woman on a balcony facing the night sky, had been estimated at $4.5 million to $6.5 million.

“There was not much to get excited about in this sale,” said Emmanuel Di Donna, whose New York gallery specializes in modern and postwar art. “They’ve covered their base and often sold on one bid. Feels selective.”

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