The Spread Between New and Blue-Chip Art Is Narrowing

Drawing market trends from art auctions is always tricky.

Auction houses are middlemen at the mercy of both the seller, who provides or withholds supply, and the buyer. As a result, a very good or very bad sale has more to do with the specific objects that auction houses can wrangle, rather than the overall strength of the market. 

“It’s object to object,” says David Galperin, the head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale. “We have the job of trying to source really incredible material, and I think when exceptional objects come to market, they sell very well, and you have headlines.”

On the face of it, as Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker banged the gavel on Tuesday to close the auction house’s final marquee evening sale of 2020, the live-streamed event was not designed to make headlines. 

Its total was a mere $63.3 million, a far cry from the auction house’s October contemporary and  impressionist and modern art evening sales, which totaled $284 million. Indeed, it came to less than half of the total achieved by Phillips auction house, which held a triumphant $134.6 million evening sale on Monday. 

“Where we were really different was our strategy,” says Jean-Paul Engelen, the deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips. “We decided to keep one main sale,” as opposed to Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which split their New York evening sales into auctions in October and December. “One big event is more special.”

But the Phillips and Sotheby’s sales this week, along with Christie’s $119 million evening sale last week, had more similarities than differences.

Young Artists on a Hot Streak

In each, a few choice blue-chip lots did well—Phillips sold a 1980 landscape by David Hockney for $41 million, and Sotheby’s sold a large mobile by Alexander Calder for $18 million, more than doubling its high estimate of $8 million—but the real stars were lower-priced, recent paintings by artists with nascent secondary markets.

Phillips and Sotheby’s each had an oil painting by Matthew Wong, a Canadian artist who committed suicide last year at the age of 35, and whose auction market is on an unprecedented hot streak.

“We’re looking at a relatively short period of time—what’s felt like a lifetime in 2020— since late June, when a Matthew Wong painting sold for $1.8 million [above a high estimate of $80,000] to today,” Galperin says. “That’s less than six months.”

The 2018 work at Phillips sold for $1.25 million above a high estimate of $500,000; the 2017 painting at Sotheby’s had a more modest estimate of $400,000 and sold for $2.35 million. “Every single time, there’s depth of bidding and real collectors competing,” says Galperin. 

Or take a work at Phillips by Amy Sherald, titled The Bathers. Painted in 2015, it carried a high estimate of $200,000.

After bidding from what Engelen says was more than 20 people, the work sold, with premium, for just under $4.3 million—a few hundred thousand dollars less than what an 1894 oil painting by Claude Monet sold for at Sotheby’s the following night. 

Narrowing the Gap

And that narrow difference in price between old and new could, in fact, be the headline of the season.

“There’s always been an exuberance for emerging artists or young artists,” says Galperin. “Who the artist is changes, and the type of art changes, but what we’re seeing more and more is a narrowing of the gap, in terms of prices between those [emerging] markets and the more blue-chip markets.”

The catalyst for this narrowed spread appears to be a shift in supply at present. Potential factors include post-election anxiety, a lack of work from major estates hitting the market, and general social turbulence.

Which brings us back to the role of an auction house as an intermediary—specifically, its ability to translate that change in supply into a seemingly unblinking shift in buyers’ demand. 

“In June, we had huge participation for your kind of more classic names, like Joan Mitchell or Agnes Martin,” Galperin says. “So perhaps the result is really that in events where those [blue-chip works] aren’t on the market, people focus elsewhere, and you see competition.”

It’s a competition that—with an increased appetite for buying online and a tier of collectors who are wealthier than ever—doesn’t seem to be letting up. “We can be proud of what we achieved under difficult circumstances,” Engelen says, “but you know, the truth is: You’re only as good as your next sale.”

Source: Read Full Article