The amount of money spent on Impressionist and Modern art this season blew all previous totals out of the water. Combining the $740.7m spent during the “regular” evening sales at Christie’s ($415.9m), Sotheby’s ($318.3m) and Phillips ($6.5m) with the amounts spent on Impressionist and Modern art in the evening Rockefeller and Mandel sales ($645.8m and $24.8m respectively) the grand total was a staggering $1.4bn.
This season’s record results reflect supply more than demand: ordinarily, there might be a small handful of really great Impressionist and Modern works in any given auction season whereas last week, by our count, there were around 30. The sheer volume of material to come to market was unprecedented and so, therefore, were the results. This is unlikely to become a regular occurrence, since estates of the quality and brand-appeal of Rockefeller’s are few and far between.
Still, the market absorbed more Impressionist and Modern material in a single week than has been offered in years (perhaps ever), suggesting healthy appetites—so long as quality is high. This is, in the main, a sober and functional market in which the best works fetch big prices; solid works sell well; and fillers flop.
Restraint at the Top
There was a sense of restraint in bidding at the very top with several key lots attracting one bid, often the guarantor. Such was the case with the star lot of the Rockefeller sale at Christie’s, Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905), which sold for $115m. At Sotheby’s, Modigliani’s 1917 painting Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) sold for $157.2m to the irrevocable bidder—the highest auction price in the company’s history, and the fourth most valuable lot at auction ever. The following evening at Christie’s, a $71m record was set when Brancusi’s 1932 brass head, La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) sold to its guarantor.
This might be because the air is thinner up top than imagined. Or, perhaps the houses know their markets well enough to have negotiated, in advance and in private, the top possible price. More likely, it suggests disconnect between consignor expectations and buyer demand at the very top of the market; a conflict between sellers’ belief that prices for trophy works will forever spiral upwards while buyers (at all levels) are balking at aggressive estimates.
Supply and shifting tastes impacted the results of the Impressionist works offered this season. Once again, there were few Impressionist offerings in the main evening auctions, and they found mixed results. Phillips did not offer a single Impressionist work. At Christie’s, there was one headline Impressionist painting, Vincent van Gogh‘s 1889 painting Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Remy), which sold on a single telephone bid for $39.7m (est. $35m-$55m). At Sotheby’s, Monet’s Matinée sur la Seine (1896) sold at its low estimate for $20.6m (est. $18m-$25m).
In contrast, there was a fair amount of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the Rockefeller sale, most of which sold well. Chief among them was Monet’s Nymphéas en fleur (c.1914-17), which set a new artist’s record at $84.7m (est. $50m-$70m) after a ten-minute battle between five bidders, ultimately won by Xin Li, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia, on the phone.
It is clear that demand is increasingly focused on a handful of names and, within that, mainly on works that look more Modern than 19th-century. For example, late Monet paintings are more sought after than his earlier works. Artists such as Alfred Sisley are less desirable than they once were. Across the board, buyers are tending to show apathy towards so-so works.
Of course, results depend on supply. Were a truly great Van Gogh to come to market, for example, it would likely set a new world auction record.
The fierce competition for the best supply is only increasing, not only amongst the auction houses (Phillips only began including Modern works in its evening auctions in 2015 and Christie’s has ramped up its ambitions in the field since Guillaume Cerutti became CEO in 2016). There is much competition on the private market, too. Most major dealers in the field are former auction people who, operating privately, can move nimbly and at high levels. Attesting to this, the biggest deals that have taken place over the past decade have been private: Cézanne’s The Card Players (1894-5), believed to have sold in 2011 for around $250m to Qatar; and Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) for $210m a few years later in 2014, also to Qatar.
Broadening the category is one way to deal with shrinking supply. The houses continue to experiment with moving certain artists from more regional categories into Impressionist and Modern, opening them up to a deeper buying pool. Successful examples of this last November included Vilhelm Hammershøi (typically sold in 19th-century sales); Henry Moore (usually found in Modern British auctions); and Georgia O’Keeffe (often classified as American).
American artists did well again this season. O’Keeffe’s unusual 1921 painting Lake George with White Birch almost doubled its $6m high estimate to sell for $11.3m at Sotheby’s, for example. Meanwhile, Latin American artists moved from their home category proved popular, too. There was a new world record set for a work by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera when The Rivals (1931) flew past its $7m high estimate to sell for $9.8m during the “Art of the Americas” sale of works from the Rockefeller Collection at Christie’s. And there was real interest in Rufino Tamayo’s Perro Aullando a la luna (Dog Howling at the Moon) (1942), which sold for $5.9m (est. $5m-$7m) at Sotheby’s.
The Pendulum Swings Again
It is interesting to note the pattern of market share swinging between Impressionist and Modern and contemporary. Over the past decade, market share has swung from Impressionist and Modern to contemporary—and back again several times.
The previous record total for Impressionist and Modern sales was set just six months ago in November, when a combined $769.7m was spent at the evening sales at Christie’s ($480.4m), Sotheby’s ($269.6m) and Phillips ($20.8m). The previous market peak in this field had been more than a decade before—pre-boom, in November 2006—with a combined $727.5m.
During the 2007-08 boom years, contemporary took the lead though lost ground again during the recession and recovery: Impressionist and Modern results were stronger than contemporary for four consecutive sales seasons from November 2008 to May 2010.
Then, as the market picked up, contemporary roared ahead in November 2010. By 2014, its totals typically doubled the Impressionist and Modern results (see figures here). Yet last season, contemporary slipped behind ($731.4m vs. $769.7m) and, of course, this season the Rockefeller sale helped the Impressionist and Modern sector dwarf contemporary.
This is less indicative of changes in the market than it is of supply. The auction market is largely dependent on great estates; and this season there were several focused on Impressionist and Modern. The market absorbed almost everything offered, which shows that demand was consistently high.
Having said that, we are seeing signs of tastes shifting away from early Impressionism towards the kind of Modern work that fits into a contemporary collection.
*For more analysis, listen to our podcast in which Nicholas Maclean (of London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean) and Allan Schwartzman (co-founder of AAP), discuss with our host Charlotte Burns (editor of In Other Words), what happened during the auctions: what the surprises were; what trends we can detect; and what’s going to happen next.