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November Auction Summary: the reality of an indisputable buyers market

francis-bacon-study-for-self-portrait-1964The New York Times called it: “easily the worst two weeks of high-end Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions in more than a decade” and though gravity of this statement belies some successful sales in the November auctions, in the end there seems to be little question that the art auction landscape has shifted to become a buyer’s market.

The November auctions from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips lasted roughly two weeks with approximately a 2/3 sell rate and 143 of the 399 offerings failing to sell. The sales would total under $1 billion, well below their combined minimum estimate for the sales of $1.7 billion. Sotheby’s and Christie’s brought in roughly $728.9 million for the Impressionist, modern and contemporary art primary sales which is down $1.6 billion from November, 2007 and $1.3 billion from November, 2006.

The summary points seem to be, in part, that there were some indisputable failures of the unsold works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Half Face With Collar, seen below, from Sotheby’s Tuesday evening auction (estimated at $15 million to $20 million) and the Bacon self-portrait, seen above, at Christie’s on Wednesday (estimated at $40 million). The Bacon failing to sell was for many a symbol of the current market situation in that it stood in sharp contrast to the Sotheby’s May sale of the Francis Bacon triptych for $86.2 million to Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich (when it thus became the most expensive contemporary artwork sold at auction).

However, there were still some records and strong showings with works such as the Malevich, seen below, at $60 million (at estimate), which was a record for a Russian painting, and Munch’s Love and Pain aka “Vampire,” seen below, for $38.1 million above its $30 million estimate (both on Monday the 3rd at Sotheby’s) and a Juan Gris, seen below, at an artist record of $20.8 million, also above its estimate of $12 million to $18 million, at Christie’s auction on Thursday the 6th. Nonetheless, most works sold in the low range, or below estimate, or not at all with works by artists that show up infrequently performing generally better and works that show up more often at auctions, such as the Warhols and Hirsts, faring poorly.

Also of note in summarizing the November auctions was the Monday the 3rd Sotheby’s success of the big name financiers Henry Kravis of KKR who sold Edgar Degas’s “Dancer in Repose” for $33 million and former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld selling 16 Modern and Impressionist drawings for $13.5 million against estimates of $15 million to $20 million, but clearing a reported $20 million guarantee nonetheless from the house.

All this leads to the final recurring news point of the auctions: the painful result of over-market guarantees by the major houses. The applicable guarantees were set in pre-bust summer headier times, but when in place during the November sales they would cost the auction companies losses in the many tens of millions. In two weeks of sales the auction houses guaranteed 80 artworks worth $405.8 million but sold only 60, for a combined total of $342.3 million and an estimated loss of $63.6 million (according to the Wall Street Journal’s calculations). Sotheby’s publicly reported that guarantees were responsible for a $28.2 million loss at its contemporary art auctions last week which adds up to total losses from Sotheby’s from guarantees of roughly $52 million this fall. Bill Ruprecht of Sotheby’s said of the guarantee drubbing: “We’re preparing for a different market. We are out of the guarantee business at least for a while.”


November 21, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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