in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask
Special Issue: Auction Analysis

Postwar and Contemporary Auction Analysis

The end of one era marks the beginning of another (Ed Ruscha, Light Leaks (1993) sold for $4m (est. $1.5-$2m) at Sotheby's). Art © Ed Ruscha

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

In Analysis

More than ever this season, there was confusion between categories with Christie’s sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (around 1500), Sotheby’s sale of a Formula 1 Ferrari once driven by Michael Schumacher and Phillips inclusion of Modern works into its Contemporary sale. This trend, which is significant and likely to continue, speaks to the desire of the houses to expand their audiences; the power of spectacle; and a reinvigoration of the Modern market, recently presumed to be at death’s door.

But, the trend towards creating theatre around out-of-category material within the dollar-rich Contemporary market doesn’t tell us much about the market for Contemporary art, which is the focus of this analysis. Setting aside those works, different stories emerge. Notably, the effect of challenged supply. It is also clear that the froth that defined the market around 2014 has dissipated, leaving in its place a more stable and, dare we say it, healthier marketplace. Buyers are less heady, focusing with more discretion on what they want and the amounts they are willing to pay. The very low buy-in rates suggest that this is dovetailing nicely with sellers’ understanding of the market. 

There is no single art market

Like planets in separate orbits, there is a lot of movement on different planes: from trophy-hunters shooting for the shiniest stars in the constellation (and happily overpaying to lasso them); to connoisseurs (who are seeking out special treasures); to collectors from newer economies (who are now further along in their understanding of the market than was the case a few years ago); to old-school collectors from traditional areas (who continue to do their thing, often just at higher levels); to the trade itself—and the auction houses are hoping to fulfill all of their needs.

In terms of demand, there are signs of shifting taste (or perhaps oversaturation) in certain key areas. And the success of artists whose work was fresh to the block this season points to appetites moving beyond the typical auction alphabet (Albers to Warhol). 

New measure of success

There was real consistency in terms of price points. Of the 165 Contemporary lots offered in the evening sales, 147 sold. The bulk of the activity was in the $1m to $5m price band (81 lots in total). For a market briefly accustomed to dizzying numbers, this can seem disappointing (“Ugh, they’re applauding for $5m”, a fellow reporter whispered about the crowd at one of the auctions). But these figures show a solid market—there are typically better margins for the houses at this level and often works that present collectors with opportunities for better value and refreshed curiosity.

The figures

Peter Doig, Red House (1995-96) sold for $21.1m (est. $18m-$22m) at Phillips © Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2017. Courtesy Phillips/

Sotheby’s offered 71 Contemporary lots, of which it sold 68, an impressive sell-through rate of 95.8%. Most (35 lots) sold between $1m and $5m; 18 sold for less than $1m (of these, 13 were works on paper from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection); 10 between $5m and $10m; three between $10m and $15m; two between $20m and $30m. Above this, Warhol’s Mao (1972) sold for $32.4m and Bacon’s Three Studies of George Dyer (1966) for $38.6m.

Christie’s offered 57 Contemporary lots and sold 48, a sell-through rate of 84%. Again, the vast majority (29 lots) sold for between $1m-$5m, which tells us a lot about where the market is now. Five lots sold for less than $1m; six between $5m and $10m; three between $10m and $12m; two between $20m and $28m. Above this; Rothko’s Saffron (1957) sold for $32.4m; Twombly’s beautiful Untitled (2005) from his “Bacchus” series sold for $46.4m; and Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986) for $60.9m. 

Cy Twombly, Untitled (2005) sold for $46.4m (est. on request) at Christie’s. Photo credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017

Phillips offered 43 lots, selling 40 for a sell-through rate of 93%. Nine of the works were Modern, which we account for in our Impressionist and Modern report here). Of the Contemporary works, 18 sold between $1m and $5m; 10 for less than $1m; three between $5m and $10m; and one, Peter Doig’s Red House (1995-96), for $21.1m.

The totals

Overall, the houses made a combined $731.4m on sales of Contemporary art this season. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were closer than they have been since, well, last November. This season Christie’s totaled $335.6m and Sotheby’s $302.7m, (last year, they made $277m and $276.6m respectively).

It is interesting that these totals are in the same ballpark as those we saw either side of two recent major market events: the market recession and recovery between November 2008 and November 2011 (auction totals dipped to a low of $148.5m in May 2009, but climbed quickly thereafter) and the market boom that kicked off in November 2014, lasting until May 2016 (auction totals were regularly $1.2bn).  These current totals, lower than the highs of 2014 to 2016, are a reflection not of lowering prices or demand, but of decreased supply of available material at the upper price levels.

(For context, combined auction totals in the years either side: $672.9m in May 2007; $683.2m in November 2007; $752.5m in May 2008; $742m in May 2012; $867.3m in November 2012; and $867.2m in May 2013.)

The takeaway

This suggests that the market is ticking along nicely, evidenced by the low buy-in rates all round. Even so, we would see higher totals if major examples of work by the most desired artists came to auction: supply is really the issue here. 

Auction houses and secondary dealers know where these works are: they are just having a hard time convincing their owners to part with them. Yes, the owners would likely make a large chunk of change, but most collectors at this level simply do not need the money. And, where would they put all of that extra cash? Since supply at the top is so tight, it would be difficult to find a work of art as good as what they sold. Until supply loosens up, this remains the market’s conundrum.

Roy Lichtenstein, Female Head (1977) sold for $24.5m (est. $10m-$15m) at Sotheby’s © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Photo credit: Sotheby’s


Historically, two major movements have driven the American market: Pop and Abstract Expressionism. Several of the top lots this season were works made by two of the artists most closely associated with Pop, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. That’s not unusual. What is different is that, while previous seasons have been defined by a glut of Pop, this season we saw very little—and mostly from periods or bodies of work that have been underdeveloped in the market.

There were four works by Lichtenstein on offer, none of which were from the 1960s, the core years of Pop art. At Christie’s, Entablature #6 (est. $1.5m-$2.5m) failed to find a buyer. Faring better, two works on paper from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection, which sold well at Sotheby’s (The White Tree (Study) (1979)) for $975,000 (est. $450,000-$650,000) and Drawing for Interior with Swimming Pool Painting for $435,000 (est. $300,000-$400,000).

Also at Sotheby’s, Female Head (1977) sold for $24.5m, making it the tenth most expensive Lichtenstein to sell at auction (est. $10m-$15m). It is also the only work from the 1970s in his top ten, substantiating this period as one of his most productive and undervalued.

Of the six on offer, there were only two works by Warhol that sold for more than $10m in the evening sales—both of which did well, albeit without great competition: Mao (1972) sold at Sotheby’s for $32.4m (est. $30m-$40m) while, at Christie’s, Sixty Last Suppers (1986) sold for $60.9m (est. in the region of $50m). 


There was also less Minimalist art on offer than previous seasons—no works by Donald Judd, for example. Meanwhile, works by Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden all failed to sell.

This does not reflect a shift in tastes. It has been a strong year for Minimalism masterworks on the private market. A Judd stack sold recently for a price thought to be in excess of $15m. There have been value-elevating prices for works by Ryman this year, too, including a sale of a work for around $30m to an East Coast collector and of another for around $20m to a European collector. At Sotheby’s, Meridian (1971) failed to find a buyer, which says less about the work than it does about demand. The market is focused on Ryman’s most painterly paintings with a thickness of texture. The strength of Meridian, a major painting with impeccable provenance, is that which distinguishes it from the more brush-y paintings, but this evaded this market. 

The Agnes Martin market has its own rhythm: date, color and composition dependent. Last year, a record was set. This year, there were a few bumps. At Sotheby’s, Untitled #12 (1996) sold for $2.8m (est. $3m-$4m) while Untitled #5 (1981), failed to sell. At Christie’s, Untitled (2003) sold, likely to the irrevocable bidder, for $4.7m (est. $4m-$6m).

Seven of the works in Martin’s top ten are prices set in the past three years, including Orange Grove (1965) which sold for a record $10.7m at Christie’s in May 2016 and Untitled #13 (1980) which sold at Sotheby’s this past May for $8.1m. The strength in the market won’t suddenly reverse; it appears to be briefly on pause.

Kerry James Marshall, Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015) sold for $5m (est. $1m-$1.5m) at Christie’s. Photo credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017


We are living in a turbulent age and it is often the case that, when times get tough, the market switches focus from splashier art towards more content-driven work. That seems to be a factor in the rise of figurative art—something we have been seeing across the auctions, galleries and art fairs this year.

There was huge demand last week for work by artists working in a deeply figurative vein: Kerry James Marshall’s Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015), which is one of the most wonderful of these smaller-scale portraits, sparked a bidding war at Christie’s, where it sold for $5m (est. $1m-$1.5m). The Hours Behind You (2011) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—an artist whose work has been much sought after since she emerged several years ago, but whose supply on the primary market is carefully monitored— flew past its $250,000 to $350,000 estimate at Sotheby’s to sell for $1.6m.

Elsewhere, there was recognition of artists who have been working seriously for decades. Philippe Parreno’s colorful installation My Room is Another Fish Bowl (2016) was an unexpected inclusion as second lot at Christie’s, where it sold well—$516,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000). This is new work made in 2016 by a very well respected artist who has, until now, barely had an auction presence. His recognition is well deserved.

At Sotheby’s, Laura Owens’ glorious Untitled (2012) was heavily pursued by several bidders and catapulted past its $200,000 to $300,000 estimate to sell for $1.8m. Here is an example of an artist whose work has been long adored by people who love painting but not always understood by the market more broadly, mainly because she works across such a range. 

The auction was well-timed: Owens, who is reaching a point of maturity in her market, is the subject of a precisely-curated retrospective at the Whitney Museum which cleanly lays out why she is such a significant artist (“Laura Owens”, until 4 February). Buyers have limited access to her work on the primary market so this large-scale painting, which is from one of her finest recent bodies of work and happens to be extremely colorful and voluptuous in its painting, was an excellent example and so proved to be incredibly in demand.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Hours Behind You (2011) sold for $1.6m (est. $250,000-$350,000) at Sotheby’s. Photo credit: Sotheby’s

Day sales

There was great strength in the day sales. Sotheby’s had its most successful day sale in ten years, offering 359 lots and selling 317 for $103m total, a sell-through rate of 88%. Phillips had its highest total for a day sale in the company’s history, selling 178 of the 199 lots on offer for $20.8m, a sell-through rate of 89%. And Christie’s totaled $104m, selling 293 of its 337 lots, a sell-through rate of 87%.

The majority of the action at Christie’s was in the $100,000 and $500,000 range (146, accounting for $35.4m of its total). They had a similar total from works sold in the $1m-$5m range, $37.3m, from just 19 sold lots.  

The next day, the buying at Sotheby’s was fairly evenly split across two price bands: 128 lots sold under $100,000 for a total $5.6m and 130 lots sold in the $100,000-$500,00 range for $32m. Meanwhile, it had almost the exact results as Christie’s the $1m to $5m range— $37.4m total from 20 sold lots.

Phillips sold most of its works in the range up to $100,000: 101 lots for a total $4.3m. Interestingly, 54 lots in the $100,000-$500,000 made a total $11.2m—almost half the number of lots for more-than-two-and-a-half times the revenue.  


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