in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript: Auction Talk with Nick, Allan and Charlotte

Guests Nicholas Maclean and Allan Schwartzman with host Charlotte Burns

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

In Podcast Transcripts

“It is a sign that the market is starved for broadening what it sees as valuable. This is a big triumph. This is a turning point in perception” — Allan Schwartzman

“I honestly thought that this could be the death knell for the Impressionist market. And then we saw it: that change between 2005 and 2008 was extraordinary” — Nicholas Maclean

“This question of identities seems to me to be a very American one. I think Americans, and perhaps the American market, are more open to approaching their own identity” — Charlotte Burns

“True collectors who will just look across the board and look at artists that tell the whole story are becoming rarer” — Nicholas Maclean


Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and joining us today we have Nicholas Maclean of the London and New York dealership, Eykyn Maclean. Hi Nick, thanks for being here.

Nicholas Maclean: Thank you Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: And we have Allan Schwartzman, who is the co-founder of Art Agency Partners and a Chairman at Sotheby’s. Allan, thanks for being here.

Allan Schwartzman: Hello, thank you.

Charlotte Burns: The subject at hand is the auctions. Over the past two weeks in New York, there was more than $2.3bn spent on Impressionist, Modern, and contemporary art, and today we’re going to discuss what happened: what the surprises were; what trends we can detect from this; and what’s going come next.

So, let’s begin with what your overall impressions were. How do you think the auctions went?

Nicholas Maclean: I think the auctions went very well.

Charlotte Burns: Were you expecting that?

Nicholas Maclean: There was a lot on the market. Obviously the Rockefeller sale did well. It was interesting to see that the top lots didn’t fly the way they expected, and that kind of carried the whole way through into the next week.

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that is—the air seemed a little thinner at the top this time?

Nicholas Maclean: There weren’t that many lots which were A+. They were just very good—and the difference between very good and outstanding is more exaggerated today than has been in the past.

Charlotte Burns: How much of it do you think is to do with expectations: we’ve all been talking about it being a trophy market in which buyers will pay anything for major trophies. Do you think that consigner expectations have gone up because of that? Do you think the estimates were aggressive, or do you think things were fairly priced at the top?

Nicholas Maclean: I think that there were some pretty strong estimates, actually. And I think there’s also this issue if something is third-party guaranteed, more often than not it will end up selling to the guarantor. It sort of takes the life out of it.

When works are estimated correctly, or conservatively, there’s obviously always that much more bidding, but usually with the top lots there’s a nervousness amongst consigners about actually putting a work in with the risk that it might not sell. So they’ll generally always want a guarantee, and the guarantee is often at quite a high level, therefore. The Modigliani being a case in point.

Charlotte Burns: Let’s talk a little about that work.

Nicholas Maclean: It’s a work that was bought in the early 2000s and it made a pretty strong price at the time, of about $27m. The owner had had many offers since then, and I think had been just waiting for the right time to place it into auction. And he got the offer, which was obviously a very full one, and decided, right, this is the moment. But it was always going to be a struggle to match the previous record price paid, which was about roughly $170m.

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that is?

Nicholas Maclean: I think, commercially, that the other one was a little bit more appealing. And also the markets were very thin at the top.

Modigliani is a big name, particularly amongst the Russians, and obviously we’ve seen the Chinese collecting. But there’s not quite the same depth of American bidding that you might see with, say, Picasso. He’s not as well known a name. It’s a market that was heavily pushed, particularly in the 2006/07 period, when the Russians were buying heavily. So it’s not particularly deep as a market. But also it was priced, you know, right up there. So if it’d been priced at $100m, maybe it could’ve made potentially a bit more—but it’s a big risk for the owner.

Allan Schwartzman: I have a hypothetical question here. Because it does seem that, even more so now than ever, that the top lots are works where the estimates or the guarantees are at a fullest range and therefore, often, they tend to sell to the guarantor. It’s almost like a private sale has been enacted and then it’s put out there in front of the auction world.

If you were still working in the auction house and that came to you as a straight consignment, not as a guarantee, what number would you put on it?

Nicholas Maclean: I mean, you’d want to have it at $100m.

There’s a much more obvious thing: there’s a titillating aspect of the frontal nude is more appealing as well, commercially. I mean, it’s as basic as that.

Charlotte Burns: Were there any other surprises at the top? Those big banner lots, in several cases, sold on one bid, possibly two, often to the guarantor. There wasn’t as much excitement as people had maybe anticipated.

Did you anticipate excitement? We’ve mentioned the Modigliani; there were other works— the Picasso, Young Girl with Basket of Flowers (1905) in the Rockefeller sale had a strong result, selling for $115m, but it just went on one bid, I think, to the guarantor.

Nicholas Maclean: I always felt that it was an interesting picture, but a difficult picture. The shape, it has a narrow format. It’s a teenager’s body with an older woman’s head. It’s not an easy picture, in many ways. And so I think the price achieved looked to me the right number.

There’s a taste change as well. I mean, there’s a move away, really, from—certainly with Picasso—with the works from the Blue and Rose period. Really the big prices are likely to be paid going forward for Marie-Thérèse or Dora Maar subject matter. The first time we see a $200m+ painting by the artist, it’s definitely going to be for a later work.

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think there is that taste change?

Nicholas Maclean: I think because they probably tie in more with collectors of Post-war paintings.

Obviously, the way that the auction houses decide to sell paintings is always still in these traditional categories of Impressionist, Modern and Post-war contemporary. But it’s not how most collectors buy. There’s a huge number of collections that will have, mixed amongst them, earlier pictures. They might have a Mondrian or a Picasso mixed in with, you know, great Ab Ex, Pop or Minimalist works.

Obviously the later works tie in much more closely with artists from… —look at someone like George Condo; he’s looking at Picasso, but he’s looking at later Picasso. So, you can see why the taste for Condo buyer, if they wanted to go buy a Picasso, which I’ve seen before, it’s going to be for the later work.

Charlotte Burns: Right, that makes sense. I was seeing the same thing with Monet as well: there’s a move away from early works towards later works. Is that a similar thing, that the later works look more modern?

Nicholas Maclean: Certain Ab-Ex artists—such as Mitchell, de Kooning, Still—they were influenced by late Monet, so it’s, again, something which sort of makes sense. The argument was obviously made by Clement Greenberg many years ago, but the fact is that taste for more abstracted works is essentially more appealing for today’s buyer.

Allan Schwartzman: At the same time, in the Rockefeller material, you had the taste of a collector of another era, and nonetheless, there were buyers for a tremendous number of high-priced works, I’m assuming, because of the quality and the rarity.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, I mean there was a Rockefeller effect. No doubt. The quality was very good throughout. It wasn’t always A+. I think it’s important to say that, obviously, MoMA had their pick of the works they wanted. It’s probably fair to say that many of the works were extremely good, of A quality; not that many which were A+.

I think there are other reasons for it. There’s an artist called Seguin, who’s essentially a lesser-known Nabis artist. Why did that make so much money—I think it made over $6m? Part of the reason for that is that there’s certainly been new interest from collectors in Asia in the Nabis period and museums in Japan, but also it was commercially a very appealing subject matter. So, there is a decorative aspect to many of the works that were being sold.

Two examples: you obviously had the big price for the Nymphéas (c.1914-17), but the two works that followed, there was a good price paid for a painting from the Vétheuil period, which was the early 1880s, and then much earlier coastal landscape, from I think the early 1870s, which struggled; I think there was one bidder. You had three types in a row, and wisely they put them one after another, but they were hoping there was going to be probably additional bidding on the third early and more pure Impressionist work, which didn’t happen.

I think that taste, still, did apply to the sale. So, when you actually look through it, there weren’t really ultimately too many surprises. I mean the only big picture that flew was the Nymphéas. The Matisse was a very attractive painting, but ultimately, I think if you were going to get any contemporary collector interested in buying Matisse they’re going to want probably either to buy a cutout, or a work from perhaps the 1930s or 1940s, or even one of the great abstracted pictures from the teens, which of course don’t really exist anymore anyway.

So, there is a Park Avenue, sort of 1970s, feel to the collection. And there obviously are still collectors buying in that area. Not so many Americans are left buying in this field. I think many of them are actually, of the buyers—the bidders that I could see—were Asian bidders, which is interesting to see. But that’s not to say that there’s not going be a turnaround in taste for this period.

Allan Schwartzman: Was it surprising that the market was able to absorb that many works, at let’s say the $15m and up level in a single week?

Nicholas Maclean: In general, you think, or we’re talking about just Rockefeller?

Allan Schwartzman: Let’s talk Rockefeller.

Nicholas Maclean: Rockefeller, I think, less surprising because we all know about the dearth of fresh material, and there’s this one huge sale of fresh material from one of the most well-known names in America. I mean, it was like the Royal family selling, so inevitably, I think, there was a lot of bidding from people who just wanted to own a piece of—

Charlotte Burns: —A piece of that history.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, quite. I think it was priced correctly. In a way you can look and say, well, there was a little bit of perhaps disappointment with some of the bigger lots. But actually the prices were correct. Ultimately, I think it’s quite encouraging. I think the market was quite savvy, and decided: “These are the levels we’re going to pay, and we’re not going to go crazy.”

You saw a little bit more froth in the market in the contemporary sales, particularly with the group of African American works that came up. Obviously, there were some incredible prices paid for really good examples, but it still probably took most of the audience by surprise, and probably the press too. Were you surprised?

Allan Schwartzman: No, I wasn’t surprised. I think that, in general, the contemporary market has become so “efficient”, that it has narrowed the artists that it is interested in for highest-level prices to such an extent that it’s become almost too efficient.

And then when you have these new stories that appear, where something you haven’t seen perform at a very high level does, I think it’s a sign that the market is starved for broadening what it sees as valuable. Some of this is a function of scarcity, of the typical top material. And some of it is about changing tastes and interests.

I look at the Kerry James Marshall price, for example, but this really would apply, in a sense, to almost all of the African American work that was sold both in the evening sale and the day sales. We’ve known for more than 40 years that there’s a gross imbalance in both museums and private collectors in the attention that they pay or don’t pay to significant artists of Black, Latin and even Asian ethnicities.

It took this long for the market to catch up—and this is the interesting part of it—we’re at a turning point, and I think we’re at a turning point for several reasons.

One is that you have a great museum leader in Thelma Golden, who could be the director of virtually any great museum in this country—and has probably been approached for most of those jobs over the last number of years—who cut her teeth in a mainstream museum, like the Whitney; went to the Studio Museum, has made that her commitment, and has stayed with it.

So, what had been previously seen as a marginalized institution and a marginalized artist population has now been brought more into the mainstream, in part because you have a very smart, astute curator-turned-director, who has a widening circle of patrons and supporters.

You have an increasing both black community and white community looking at the work of African American artists. And we are at a moment where, more than ever, there’s a very high percentage of younger artists that are of greatest interest who are of African descent. So, we see a critical mass in contemporary art, which naturally sends collectors looking back a bit.

An artist like Kerry James Marshall, the work has always been difficult to get. He doesn’t produce a lot of work. There has been consensus belief in his work for a very long time on the part of institutions. And the fact that he’s in Chicago, where there is a substantial base of collectors who always supported the work, helps a lot. The fact that there was a major retrospective at major museums that got a lot of attention—all of that helped. You combine that with the wide belief that this is the ultimate-of-ultimates of his works, both in terms of scale and content and technique, and that did not surprise me.

It surprised me that it took this long. This is a big triumph. This is a turning point in perception. And this is something that will not change, even though tastes may change. This is, in large part, driven by the mandate that many American museums have put forward; to focus especially on collecting in areas where they have been negligent in the past. So this means both with new art, and going back into the ‘60s and ‘70s and so on in correcting an error of focus, in terms of the work of artists of African descent. And the activities of museums are so closely linked to their patrons, who are the major collectors who buy expensive Richters and Warhols and so on. So I think it was a confluence of a number of factors.

Charlotte Burns: Just to put some figures in here. The painting that Allan’s talking about is called Past Times, a large work from 1997 that was estimated between $8m to $12m dollars in Sotheby’s sale, and sold for $21.1m—which is almost 900 times the $25,000 that its consigner paid for it two decades ago. The consigner was the Metropolitan Peer and Exposition Authority, which said it didn’t have the capacity to look after a work that was so expensive now.

Allan Schwartzman: And the previous record for Kerry James was what, in what year?

Charlotte Burns: He first broke $1m in 2014 when Vignette, a 2003 work, sold at a Christie’s day sale for $1m, estimated between $400,000 to $600,000. So, it was only four years ago that he was in the day sales, and at $1m—and that was a big deal.

And then the previous record had been last season, in November at Christie’s, when Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015) sold for $5m.

But, like you say, there had been a major retrospective, a touring show that was in Chicago, at the Met Breuer, and then in LA, which was wildly popular in terms of the public, and also critically admired.

And his long-term dealer, Jack Shainman, has always kept a tight control on the market. I think the prices there have been high for a long time. And David Zwirner now represents the artist, too, I believe. So, a couple of factors came together.

Kerry James Marshall is 62 years old; it’s not like it’s some grad school artist who’s just started making really hot work. So it doesn’t feel speculative.

The work is reported to have sold to the rapper P. Diddy. Another hip-hop star, Swizz Beatz, who was seated in the front row standing next to the press, which is where I was standing, and turned around to us and went “wow!” when the hammer sold, which was kind of great. And he was also buying, too.

Allan Schwartzman: I mean you could look similarly at the work of Barkley Hendricks, whose work was virtually unknown to this market two years ago, and that work has been setting records ever since it started to appear at auction. Interestingly, Barkley Hendricks for years was represented by ACA Gallery,  and now Jack Shainman. ACA was a traditional, conservative American gallery, so he was probably viewed for the longest time in the context of photorealism, which is a very different movement.

Charlotte Burns: It’s kind of regional.

Allan Schwartzman: Exactly, so now it found its right audience, and it’s understandable from that perspective why it took so many decades.

Charlotte Burns: One thing I’m hearing from a lot of people in the market is, okay, there’s this big moment for African American artists; how will we know who’s good and who’s not good? Who’s going to stand the test of time? Which of these artists are great?

Obviously, markets are paying attention to what the museums have been doing, so there’s a solid base underneath all of this. But to what extent will the markets surpass it or make it too frothy? Artists will rise up who might then fall down again. How solid does it feel in the market?

Allan Schwartzman: I would say that it’s just like any moment where the market creates a greatly increased interest in a particular area, where everything starts to rise and it doesn’t yet develop connoisseurship that keeps pace with the hunger for the material.

There are many artists that are worthy. Look at someone like Jack Whitten, and how truly innovative in painting he has been. This has been a known and very present artist in the contemporary scene since the mid-70s. But he was always seen, unlike many of his peers in the Black community, in terms of a mainstream development of post-Minimal painting.

Nowadays, we look back and we see works from the 1970s in which we see precursors to Richter’s abstraction. We didn’t have the frame of reference for that in the 1970s, and we probably didn’t know to think that way until quite recently.

So, with someone like Jack, who then goes on to be innovative in painting in virtually every phase that he enters into, we’re just beginning to discover what’s there. I mean, it was out of sight—in direct view—for a very long time.

In terms of younger work, I think that there is a starvation for narrative, for art that is content-driven. For so long, the market was dominated by abstraction—that is the market of younger artists—and more often than not, easy abstraction; paintings that were easy to apprehend.

We always see that when the market for contemporary art gets too focused on a lot of simple abstraction that—whether it’s because of changes in the political climate, the economic climate, the social climate—that eventually the market then seeks out work that’s content-driven rather than by style, or driven by formal exploration.

And we happen to be in one of those moments, and it just so happens that the vast majority of artists who are working in narrative are artists of African descent, which makes perfect sense: these are artists who, as a community, have been dealing with identity and voice, much in the same way that women artists did in the feminist movement. And one can look to other social revolutions that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s as being on a similar front.

So, if you look back at the precursors to these artists in the black community, to artists like Robert Colescott, there was a divide between a kind of avant-garde way of looking at figuration, which would be Pop and appropriation, or what look a more traditional, old-fashioned approach to figuration. Now, that there’s so much interest in the work of African American artists today, a lot of that work from the 1960s that looked like it belonged in a different category, now makes much more sense within a cultural lineage. And that took decades of artistic evolution to be able to have that frame of reference.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, the recent Tate show, I think it was last year, of—

Charlotte Burns: “Soul of a Nation”.

Nicholas Maclean: “Soul of a Nation”, exactly. It was very interesting, because obviously it was a multi-artist show. Frankly, some came across being sociologically very interesting, while not necessarily artistically so important. Whereas you had an artist like Barkley Hendricks, who really shone out as being one of the best.

So, it was interesting to look at it on one level, as sort of fascinating to summarize a period: I think it spanned roughly 30 years. But also to look at actually thinking which artists stand above and are going be seen as—like a Jack Whitten or Kerry James Marshall—somebody who’s going to actually be able to stand the test of time. As you say, it’s going to take time.

Allan Schwartzman: We’re just at the beginning of a wider market and community of scholars and critics looking at this material to begin to understand it. As with any art that gets “rediscovered”, that veers from a mainstream notion of the art of that period, it takes a long time to begin to understand it.

Shiraga is a perfect parallel; where that just looked like derivative Abstract Expressionism for many decades, and then all of a sudden, we saw it afresh for what it was. This is very similar.

Nicholas Maclean: I was curious to ask one question about Kerry James Marshall and these three works that came up. So, Past Times makes its extraordinary price as his masterpiece. And yet the other two works that appeared [in the evening sales] didn’t really do that well.

I couldn’t help but feel that, maybe, there was actually a little bit speculation that has been going on. It’s one thing saying, you know, a picture that you’ve owned for 20 years and say: “Well, I’m going take advantage of the market as it is at the moment.” It’s another thing saying: “I’m here as a white collector looking at this very interesting artist, but really about an era I don’t know particularly well. But I can see that he’s a really good artist and his market is clearly going to go places.”

Do you think there’s a danger that a little bit is going take place? I’m just wondering, do you see that with the prices for the other two, Untitled (Blanket Couple) (2014), and You Must Suffer if You Want to be Beautiful (1991), which did kind of okay—

Allan Schwartzman: I don’t know if this is even a critique of the relative quality of those works as it is the effect of so many people believing that they were chasing the ultimate Kerry James Marshall.

Just like if a de Kooning “Woman” painting—a great one—were to come forward today, that’s going to set a totally different level that may not really impact on the de Kooning market in general.

Nicholas Maclean: So, that would appear to be normal, but I’m wondering, do you think that there is a potential danger that we’re going to start seeing a little bit of speculation?

Allan Schwartzman: For sure, absolutely.

Nicholas Maclean: And has it been happening already, actually?

Allan Schwartzman: It’s inevitable that it happens. Because this is an artist who doesn’t make a lot of work, and it’s been well controlled. I don’t think you’ll see the same rush to market of material that you see when an artist goes from $20,000 to $2m in other cases.

I think this happens always in the contemporary market. It’s very hard to think of any artist who shot up from an average price level to an extraordinary price level in a short period of time that didn’t attract speculators; that didn’t shoot way up and then dip down at certain times.

And as we’ve often seen, when there’s a work that achieves a breakout price for an artist, more often than not, that price isn’t met the next time around—but it raises the base for how that artist is viewed.

Charlotte Burns: Exactly. And this is the case with Kerry James Marshall. If you look at those prices: at Phillips, there was a pre-sale estimate of $3.5m to $5.5m for Untitled (Blanket Couple) (2014), and it sold for $4.3m. So, that’s just slightly below the record that was set in November. In the context of a $21.1m painting, it seems like it should go for more than that, but it’s just slightly below the record that was only set six months ago. So, the market’s still gone up.

The other thing I think is interesting is that this question of identities seems to me to be a very American one. I think Americans, and perhaps the American market, are more open to approaching their own identities.

I remember seeing the “Soul of a Nation” show in London, and I thought: “This is so bizarre to me, that a London institution would put on a show of African American artists without considering the same questions about its own community.” It seemed very bizarre to me that it was presented as an American issue rather than looking at the English racial tensions that have existed over decades. It occurred to me at the time that the question of what it means to be an American is perhaps more thought about than the question of what it means to be—

Nicholas Maclean: That’s interesting as a concept, but I also think, in terms of number of great African American artists that appeared—I don’t have the knowledge; I need Allan to answer this—but great British artists, say, of Caribbean descent who came over in the 50s or 60s, I think it’s a small group.

Allan Schwartzman: I could give you a different parallel, which is that last year I saw an exhibition of an Iraqi-born artist who lives in London, who is in his 80s. He is a most respected artist in the Middle East at a very high level and it was a major, large-scale exhibition. The work was extraordinary; I had not been familiar with the work before.

I learned, when I went through the show, that he has not had a solo exhibition in London, even though he’s lived there for several decades—despite how much attention is placed upon the work in the Middle East. And so I mentioned this artist to several dealers in London, saying somebody should do something, because this is a door that’s wide open for mining new territory and developing a new market. And not a single person asked me the name. So, there wasn’t any interest in following up.

Nicholas Maclean: I think it’s part of a much bigger issue, Allan; I think it’s simply a British thing. Look at the museums, look at the Tate, look how thin it is with great 20th century art. I’m afraid that it’s just never been—it’s naturally conservative. I mean, thankfully it changed a lot in the 1990s with the arrival of the YBAs, but it’s still—we’re playing catch-up over there.

Allan Schwartzman: Yes, but there’s a corollary here, which is that we’ve never come to grips with slavery in this country. We still haven’t. And particularly in a city like New York, which saw itself as not part of the problem historically, but there’s a tremendous amount of institutionalized racism here that goes unacknowledged, and therefore uncorrected. So the fact that this is happening in art now is without precedent, and it is a very positive sign; one that is reflective of how—unlike other parts of our society—the art field is looking in areas that it hadn’t looked before. It is seeking to correct a kind of myopathy of the past.

It’s also linked to broader issues within popular culture in which you have figures in the music world, that you refer to as buying some of this work, actually becoming mainstream figures; who become as significant in the black community as a political leader would’ve been in the 1960s but also have as much support or audience or market in white communities as well. So, there’s something that’s changing substantially.

Nicholas Maclean: It’s a great thing.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also shifting demographics. This is something that other writers and I talk about, the fact that so many writers about the art world and art market are female. 

A couple of years ago at the Frieze Art Fair in London, almost every single publication talked about how interest in work by female artists was growing. I walked around the fair thinking that it was so interesting that that was a story that almost everyone was coming up with because, when you’re on deadline and you have to write a report the next day, you’re always looking for an angle—because you’re essentially writing about a trade event and you need to apply a narrative to it. And so, you go and look for one. It’s not like you walk around a fair going: “Well I can tell that’s by a woman, and I can tell that’s by a man.” So you go and find that story and then you write about that story and then everybody says oh yes, everybody is writing about that.

But the demographics are shifting of who’s telling stories, and that has a broader impact. So then, Allan was talking about Thelma, for example; Thelma’s been telling different stories, and that has a ripple effect.

Allan Schwartzman: There were a number of works in the contemporary sales that sold well above what we would’ve expected them to a few months ago. They’re women artists. They’re men artists. There are a lot of stories that are emerging here which I think talk more broadly about a starvation in the contemporary market to broaden its view, and to be discovering artists.

You could similarly look at Mark Tansey, who’s been a kind of standard in the marketplace, who has done very well with some paintings and interest has been thin for other works. And here he blew through his record with a very excellent painting. Similarly, I think—

Charlotte Burns: Cecily Brown is another example.

Allan Schwartzman: Cecily Brown is a perfect example.

Charlotte Burns: Her market took a leap last week with a $6.8m sale of Suddenly, Last Summer (1999), which had been estimated at $1.8m to $2.5m. And what was so interesting about that was that that was the 43rd lot in a very long sale at Sotheby’s—and there were still six bidders chasing this work, so there was a huge appetite.

Cecily is an artist who first came to prominence in the early 2000s. She quickly shot up in the 2000s to having work sell for six-figure sums. She signed with Gagosian; she appeared on Charlie Rose—she wasn’t an unknown artist, and hasn’t been for two decades. But over the past year, her market’s got much busier. Seven of the top 10 auction records have been since 2017 and for fairly consistent sums, all around $1m to $2.5m. And now this is a leap to almost $7m. Why is that?

Allan Schwartzman: This points out to me two things, or I think it’s due to two principle reasons. One is that many, many of the new records we saw in contemporary art, and some of them in the Impressionist & Modern sale, are for women. Just like there is an increase in interest in the work of black artists, there’s an increasing interest in the work of women artists. With the Georgia O’Keeffe, which ordinarily wouldn’t be in an evening sale of Impressionism and Modern art and we’ve also seen with Joan Mitchell there was a huge leap forward.

Nicholas Maclean: It’s interesting. You could look at it from two ways. I have long since felt that Joan Mitchell’s market has been quite underrated. She really is an artist who you can sort of break up into three, almost four periods, and remains as strong with each new change of style.

Charlotte Burns: Is demand invested in the same way across those four periods, or has it been focused?

Nicholas Maclean: 1950s works are rarer. I mean it’s quite interesting, there was a good, not great, 1950s work that appeared that did okay over at Christie’s. And yet, in the same sale, there was this later work—

Charlotte Burns: Blueberry.

Nicholas Maclean: Blueberry—immensely appealing, very richly painted, thick impasto. And it made a price way beyond anybody’s expectations.

Charlotte Burns: $16.6m.

Nicholas Maclean: Amazing price. But in a way you could say, “Well, that was long overdue.” But the fact is, she’s a great artist.

I mean, I think O’Keeffe is a different case. I think the slight problem is because she’s always been in American sales and so you look and think, okay, who are the guys she’s going to be with? Well, it’s Hopper, Bellows—quite a small group of major names. And she sort of stands along; she doesn’t really go with anybody. And so, finally, she’s sort of being pushed into the Modern sales and she’s being seen in a different light.

So, is she making big prices because she’s a woman or because actually she’s a great artist, a unique artist and she represents something peculiarly American as well?

I mean, obviously it was a massive price of $40m+ paid for the large still-life two or three years ago. So, you see a price like that and obviously it raises prices for good or even just mid-level works as well. But I think that when we talk about somebody like Mitchell, this was due; it was going to happen anyway.

Charlotte Burns: Isn’t it always to do with supply, as well? The great Ab-Ex works by all the men kind of ran out. You had to start looking to markets that were tangential; at things that were built up in parallel.

Nicholas Maclean: That can be a reason, too. So, I think it’s a bit of a mixture of everything. I think the fact that they are women artists who’ve maybe been overlooked; but I like to think that they’re also making very good prices because they’re good.

Allan Schwartzman: But I’ll throw out a few other thoughts in this regard. One is that about a year and a half ago, when Sotheby’s started displaying some highlights from the American sales within the Impressionist & Modern evening sale view, the top lots brought much higher prices than they had before, and all of the buyers were people who had never shown up at an American sale. So, this was just about being in front of the eyes of people from a different part of the market, who could see that work, for whom that work resonated.

So, I think breaking down some of these boundaries that have both kept certain markets alive—but also kept them contained—is helping at the top end in broadening the number of people interested in particular artists’ works.

In the case of Joan Mitchell, a lot of her painting, which is excellent, is tough. They have difficult palettes to them; they’re kind of muddy; they’re not necessarily what a collector of beautiful painting is looking for. This Mitchell was so beautiful, and such a great painting, that you kind of got the best of Mitchell in a most palatable way.

Nicholas Maclean: Yep. Well, I think that the 1950s work actually was very good, the one that came out, but it had a tough palette, so I agree.

Allan Schwartzman: And just to finish the point that I was trying to make about Cecily Brown is that her recent primary market show at Paula Cooper was an extraordinary show. It represented a huge leap forward in terms of her bravery as an artist; in terms of her hand and the role of gesture in the paintings; in terms of the kind of embedded suggestion of narrative and looking toward historical painting and seeing herself working in that kind of a realm.

And so I think the combination of showing with a new gallery that has a different profile and a different collector base, and making some of the best and most thrilling work of her career, which sold out in a minute, had to have had some carryover effect to the market at auction as well.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

And to this point of supply, I just want to bring us back a little bit to the Impressionist & Modern market. It just occurred to me that if we’re talking about how in the contemporary there’s this broadening; there’s a hunger for fresh supply, for names that we didn’t know—and the market seems to be being slightly revitalized by that freshness.

In the Impressionist & Modern market, it seems to have gone the other way. Aside from the inclusion of people like Georgia O’Keefe , who were transitioning across categories, there seems to be a consolidation in terms of buyers around names. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, it’s a side that I have to say is not particularly appealing. True collectors who will just look across the board and look at artists that tell the whole story are becoming rarer.

Many of the new collectors on the scene are often investors, and they almost bring their investing skills in the financial world to our world. So, they’ll look and think: well, Monet’s blue chip, Picasso’s blue chip, let’s buy those two artists. We saw in the March London season, there was one buyer who bought pretty well all the Picassos, and subsequently discovered it was the feeling and thinking: “We need to buy Picasso because he’s a name.” They’re all signed works—that was critical.

This is a side of the market which is concerning because then what happens to the artists who may be just as interesting? The markets for good but lesser names from a particular movement are going to disappear.

Allan Schwartzman: Which is similar in the contemporary market. If you look at, for example, what have always been the most coveted work by Gerhard Richter—the photographically based paintings from the 1960s—there simply hasn’t been a major one to come to market in a long time, so the new market that has emerged in the past five or six years, they don’t know it. So, how does that perform? Or perhaps the fact that they don’t know it means that it’s kept the material out of the market for that much longer. There really isn’t a frame of reference for that.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.

Allan Schwartzman: I think you could similarly look at Gorky. Gorky is one of the greats: Abstract Expressionism rests on him as a foundation, and yet a great work, we’re all quite confident there’ll be a buyer for it at a very high number, but in general that market has remained relatively flat for several decades.

Nicholas Maclean: Well, obviously Gorky’s output is relatively small—not helped by the fire in his studio, which obviously destroyed a large amount of the work. And many of the greatest pictures, as you know Allan, are sitting either in museums or in collections that just simply will not sell. So, in a way, the shortage of supply is probably his problem.

Richter, I think has been quite an interesting one, just because as you say, there have been so few of the photorealist works that have actually appeared on the market, ones of great quality. It’s mainly been abstract works—and it was interesting to see that they really didn’t perform very well this week, and yet on the private market, the demand is enormous.

And this does become a problem—it’s a bigger problem—that the auctions are the most visible aspect of the market. I mean, obviously, you’ve got the art fairs, which are important, but prices are not always published, and dealers rarely bring their best things to an art fair because if they don’t sell them… taking a painting of high quality to a fair and not selling it can, well, it doesn’t damage it the same way, but it’s still given it an exposure.

So, accordingly, the sale of works at auction by any particular artist can have a huge effect on the perception of that market. In a way, our market is very inefficient because most people’s pricing is based upon auction. You know, people use Artnet; it is the only source of reference.

Charlotte Burns: It’s the only public information.

Nicholas Maclean: Quite, accordingly. And often, works come to auction because there’s maybe no other choice, or it’s been around the market. And, as we get back to our original conversation about third party guarantees, that is not the best way, necessarily, to encourage and entice bidding. So, it can give a false sense of where the market is for a particular artist, because that’s just all that is available; when in fact there can be private sales taking place, which give a different sense.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. Within the Impressionist & Modern sector, the biggest figures we’ve heard of over the past decade have been private sales. There hasn’t been anything at auction of that level.

Nicholas Maclean: Exactly, exactly—and in the postwar field, too. Think of the prices paid, such as the great price paid for the de Kooning and Pollock, whenever it was, three or four years ago; there’s the Orange Marilyn which made, obviously, an enormous price. For many owners, there’s too much nervousness about being able to put a major work at auction because it takes two to make that big price.

Charlotte Burns: Right, and people get scared about it.

I thought it might be interesting to just look at some figures. So, if you include all the Impressionist & Modern works that sold at Rockefeller, it was around $1.38bn worth of Impressionist & Modern art in evening sales—which is obviously an enormous figure [NB: this recording took place before the final figures were tallied. The number is actually $1.4bn]. That’s $415.9m at Christie’s evening sale;  $318.3m at Sotheby’s; there were works in the Mandel collection for $24.8m at Sotheby’s in its contemporary auction, which is part of this crossover that we’re talking about; and I think Phillips sold around $6.5m. And then you add on the Rockefeller too, there’s just a huge amount of money, overall.

Then if you add the contemporary sales in the evening, that was $2.3bn dollars worth of art, and as we’re recording the day sales are still going on. So, these are just staggering sums of money being spent in a couple of days.

Allan Schwartzman: This underscores what we’ve always thought, but it also shows a little bit of a surprise in terms of reinforcing what we’ve always believed, or believed recently, the market has huge appetite for highest quality works by significant artists. And that’s where the market can go well beyond what the previously perceived sense of value would’ve been.

The part that I found surprising—I shouldn’t say surprising, but highly informative—is that for so many years people have been saying that the Impressionist market is a dead market. But clearly that was not an issue of taste, that was an issue of supply. And now when you have a significant number of great works come forward, they were all absorbed by the market.

Nicholas Maclean: When I left the auction house back in 2005—while our focus probably revolved more around mid-20th century and has been since, on either side of the war—Impressionism was still an area that many of the collectors we work with are involved with. They were looking increasingly towards the 20th century, and the latter half of the 20th century.

I honestly thought that this could be the death knell for the Impressionist market. And then we saw it: that change between 2005 and 2008 was extraordinary, with the arrival of Russian and Asian collectors, and Middle Eastern collectors as well. And it hasn’t stopped. It’s just very interesting to me to see, particularly with Asian collectors who have this fascination with the Impressionist field, it is an easier area to enter into the market.

Charlotte Burns: It’s less intimidating?

Nicholas Maclean: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: The figures have gone up and down. This season is a record for the Impressionist & Modern, but last season was a record and it was the first time since 2006 that those totals had been matched, which is kind of interesting.

And in the intervening years, the market share between Impressionist and Modern and contemporary has moved around slightly. After 2006, which was the previous peak for Impressionist & Modern, contemporary took over as the market with the most activity and value. Then, during the recession and recovery, Impressionist and Modern stayed more consistent. Things went back up again in 2010 for contemporary. And then, last season, we saw Impressionist & Modern doing very, very well again.

Is that just coincidence? Is it just supply driving these things or are there other factors like buyers coming in and out of the markets?

Nicholas Maclean: As we talked about before, there is a taste change, but much of the auction market does depend on the estates that come up. So you had obviously a combination of Rockefeller and Tisch, and I know Mandel’s not an estate but, still, it’s a big collection. There were a surprising number of big collections, in which there was a focus more towards Impressionist and Modern. And on top of that, it meant both auction houses were able to gather additional works because they knew that, because Rockefeller was going to be taking place the week before, there was going be a certain amount of carryover. And that played out, really.

There were very few works that flew in the Impressionist and Modern sales, but you could say this across the board. Apart from the artists we’ve been talking about, African American artists and people like Cecily Brown, more sort of contemporary artists. in general, it was pretty steady. And you could say that’s a positive sign.

Charlotte Burns: It seemed kind of healthy.

Actually, most of the activity in terms of the volume of activity was in the $1m to $5m range [in contemporary]. As much as we talk about it being a trophy market, if you exclude all the Impressionist & Modern material that was in the contemporary sales, there were 78 lots across the three houses that sold for $200.3m, and they were work in the $1m to $5m range. Obviously the value is in the works that were above $10m; there were 21 lots that sold for $484.5m, which is interesting.

You can see that at different price points that there is… it wasn’t all consolidated around the top; it hadn’t all graduated to the top. There was still a lot selling at the top, and still for the most amount of money, but the activity, the volume of activity [in contemporary], was all in the $1m to $5m range.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, although I don’t think it became any easier for both auction houses to gather material.

I mean, look, it’s always been an issue for Impressionist and Modern as opposed to postwar and contemporary. You can always bring in a group of new contemporary artists that collectors who have been unable to buy those works in galleries will step up and buy them: they’re the perfect lots one to four to get the sale going. That obviously doesn’t happen in Impressionist and Modern, but to get a 40 lot sale is a lot of work.

It’s been that way for a while and I just think this is a moment in which, because there are a number of very good estates and collections, it created a bigger buzz. It’s right that it’s so, but it revolves so much around supply.

Allan Schwartzman: And we’ve seen in the contemporary market for quite a while now the appetite in the low-to-mid seven figure level. We haven’t seen as much great property at auction, but in this round, we did. So, I think that was a new story to a large part of the public, that maybe wasn’t aware of how much appetite there is at that level. So, perhaps that brings out more material in that price level, we’ll see.

Charlotte Burns: So, just to conclude, is there anything else that you guys wanted to talk about that we didn’t?

Allan Schwartzman: I found a few disappointments in the contemporary sales. There was a beautiful single slash Fontana that found no buyer, that would’ve been the meat and potatoes of the Fontana market before.

Charlotte Burns: What happened to—

Nicholas Maclean: The Fontana market, there’s just been too much on the market. And it was certainly showing signs of recovering in the March sales, I mean, it just felt more steady. I do wonder whether that’s just a case of horses for courses; that Fontana needs to be sold in London. I just think the market is bigger there, and in the Italian sales they generally do well. It’s actually still very much a European-based market.

Charlotte Burns: To end us, I wanted to ask you both after this week—this very tiring week—of lots of sales, lots of art, lots of transactions. Do you feel good about the market going ahead through this next phase of the season? Do you think we’re in a healthy market? What’s troubling you and what’s giving you cheer?

Nicholas Maclean: I feel positive about the market. I’m concerned about the commodity aspect that I talked about earlier, where people look at artists like commodities, just for investment potential. I’ve spoken to a couple of new collectors recently who could only think of it in that way, and I realized that they’re not people I was going to be able to work with. But there are quite a few people in the market like that and that concerns me. When people come to the market, speculating, you almost hope that there’s going to be a slight downturn so they get discouraged.

The market feels, actually, relatively sensible at the moment. There was not too much madness. And you feel that it’s only going be when there’s—if there was a great Pollock came on the market, you know it would make a huge price. And that could equally be a Van Gogh or a Monet or even a Christopher Wool. But I think that certainly, going into the final stage of the season with Basel and the June auctions, I think it feels very solid.

Charlotte Burns: Allan?

Allan Schwartzman: I found this to be a very positive round of sales. On the one hand, you had a reinforcement of a sanity and discipline in most situations, where people could not be coaxed into spending more than they thought something was worth.

While at the same time, in the contemporary field, there were a number of new stories that emerged, and that had to do with artists coming to market who have not been mainstays of evening sales, that are of greater and increasing interest to the contemporary market, and also instances where you had extraordinary examples that attracted a wider buyership.

So, to me, that which opens doors to more material ultimately benefits the entire market and it also suggests an increased level of connoisseurship to hopefully counteract some of this very increased level of activity of investment.

Nicholas Maclean: Hear, hear.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you both for being my guests.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you.

Nicholas Maclean: Thank you.

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