More money was spent during last week’s Impressionist and Modern evening sales than ever before. A combined total of $748.9m was spent at Sotheby’s and Christie’s—a figure that rises to $769.7m if the $20.8m spent on Modern art during Phillips hybrid sale is included. Until now, the sector’s previous auction peak was the $727.5m spent in November 2006.
It may feel like a million years ago, but has in fact been just a decade since Impressionist and Modern art was the engine driving the market. In the intervening years, the perception has been that it is a shrinking market—a belief largely based on the overwhelming rise in value of Contemporary art.
The switch in market dominance began in May 2007 when Contemporary edged ahead in the evening sales (compare the combined total of $672.9m for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips in Contemporary with the $515m total for Impressionist and Modern at Christie’s and Sotheby’s). By May 2008, Contemporary was clearly in pole position ($752.4m vs. $513.8m).
Interestingly, the trend quickly reversed as the effects of the global recession took hold. While both markets took a hit, the Impressionist and Modern was stronger than Contemporary for four consecutive sales seasons from November 2008 to May 2010, during which years its combined totals were higher.
By November 2010, the art market was not only recovering, but also heading into a new boom—one in which Contemporary thoroughly asserted its dominance. Consider 2014: the Impressionist and Modern totals were around half the Contemporary results ($504.9m in May and $587.7m in November, compared with $1.2bn totals for both Contemporary seasons).
Shaped by supply
Demand has never been the issue: this sector is shaped by supply. Individual instances of extraordinary spending throughout the past decade point to a strong, underlying appreciation for top-tier Impressionist and Modern works, whether records set at public auction (such as the $119.9m sale of Munch’s 1895 pastel The Scream at Sotheby’s in 2012 to US financier Leon Black) or rumored sales on the private market (such as Cézanne’s The Card Players (1890-92), which is believed to have sold in 2011 for around $250m to Qatar, which is also thought to have bought Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) for $210m in 2014).
Demand for Impressionist and Modern art has also shifted, consolidating around certain kinds of work by a handful of key names. This is borne out by the combined auction totals, which, season by season, have depended on how many of these immediately appealing trophy lots each house can secure.
While the top lots help define the totals, there is more to the market than that. This season showed that there are distinct appetites beneath this level, borne out by the impressive sell-through rates: 92% at Sotheby’s and 88% at Christie’s. In other words, the market is healthy: while the totals are driven by the masterpieces, there is active buying at various price levels. It was interesting this season, for example, to see the success of some important work by less obvious artists, such as Picabia and Vuillard.
Today’s auction market is being crafted around the interests of newer buyers: the houses are working hard to bring to the block the kind of art that will appeal to these important clients. Take collectors from Asia, who began to enter the Impressionist and Modern market in around 2010, and who want works by the biggest names — Picasso, Monet, Cézanne, Giacometti and van Gogh.
Last week, more than half of the top ten works sold during Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern auction last week went to bidders from across Asia, including Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan. One single collector from the region bought several top lots, including two paintings by Monet (Les Glacons, Bennecourt (1893) for $23.4m (est. $18m-$25m), and Les Arceaux des Roses, Giverney (1913) for $19.4m (est. $18m-$25m) as well as Marc Chagall’s Le Grand Cirque (1956) for $16m (est. $10m-$15m).
Beyond the big lots, it is worth noting that Asian collectors were active at every level during the sale—underbidding on and purchasing lots in the low millions and under $1m.
At Christie’s, an Asian client bought Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ (1889) for $81.3m (est. in excess of $50m) while Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954) sold for $36.9m (est. $20m-$30m) to the company’s Jakarta-based rep on the phones.
Meanwhile, Russian collectors—assumed dormant for the past several years—are still active. The bidding war for Chagall’s Les Amoureux (1928) at Sotheby’s was between clients from Asia and Russia. The latter was victorious, buying the work for $28.5m (est. $12m-$18m).
Bridge to Contemporary?
There is increasing interest in art that wouldn’t look out of place within a Contemporary collection. The houses are moving certain works by specific artists from their traditional categories. Transitioning an artist from a more regional category into a broader one like Impressionist and Modern opens them up to a deeper pool of buyers.
Examples include Vilhelm Hammershøi. an artist whose work is typically found in 19th-century sales, but was last week placed in the Impressionist and Modern auction. His beautiful Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 (1901) flew past its $2.5m to $3.5m estimate, selling for $6.2m at Sotheby’s.
Henry Moore is an artist whose work is sometimes included in the Modern British auctions but also often placed in Impressionist and Modern. Reclining Figure (1982) had most recently sold at auction in London in 2010 for £3.6m ($5.8m), a price nearly doubled last week when it sold at Christie’s for $11m (est. $7m-$10m).
Meanwhile Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the artists typically classified as American whose work can truly be considered international. Her Yellow Sweet Peas (1925) sold for $4.4m at Sotheby’s from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (est $2.5m-$3.5m).
Expansion of Surrealism
Another area of the market to benefit from the lack of supply for the kind of Impressionist works that traditionally formed the backbone of the sector is Surrealism, which has been strong and building since around 2010.
Interest is concentrated particularly around early works by Dalí and Delvaux, while Magritte is sought across periods. New records were set for his work last week: L’empire des lumières (1949), became the most expensive work by the artist to sell at auction when it totalled $20.6m at Christie’s (est $14m-$18m). Meanwhile, Le banquet (1955-57) became the third most expensive work, selling for $13.6m (est. $12m-$18m) at Sotheby’s, which placed La voix du Sang (1947) as its first lot, selling for $1.2m (est $600,000-$900,000).
Sales of Magritte’s works have been taking place privately at the $15m to $25m level for several years now. Buyers are especially interested in the later works (which tend to be less darker and more pretty than earlier work) and works that feature recognizable motifs: the man with the bowler hat, versions of The Empire of Light, Eagle-Mountain or works featuring an egg or bird, as well as those containing sky-scenes or the moon.
Meanwhile, an exhibition at MoMA in 2013-14 (“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary”) and an upcoming show at SFMoMA (“René Magritte: The Fifth Season, 19 May-28 October 2018) add to a broader understanding to the artist.
Christie’s totaled $50.9m, selling 294 of its 379 lots, a sell-through rate of 78%. Sotheby’s offered 303 lots of which it sold 233 for $41.4m total, a sell-through rate of 77%. Phillips included 13 Impressionist and Modern works in its day auction, selling 12 of them for $1.8m (92%).
At Christie’s, the vast majority of sales took place below $100,000 (176 lots for $7.3m). The bulk of the value, however, was in the $100,000 to $500,000 range (89 lots for $21.7m). Between $500,000 and $1m, Christie’s sold 22 lots for $15.1m and, between $1m and $5m, they sold six lots for a total $6.7m.
There was a similar story at Sotheby’s: the majority of the lots were below $100,000 (121 for a total of $5.3m) and a further 93 lots priced between $100,000 to $500,000 sold for a total $22m. Between $500,000 and $1m, Sotheby’s sold 16 lots for $10.3m and, between $1m and $5m, they sold three lots for a total $3.8m.