in other words

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

Transcript: The November sales

Market talk with Nicholas Maclean and Allan Schwartzman 

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world, but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today, joining me to talk about the New York Auctions, our guests are Nicholas Maclean of the London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean.

Maclean quote from interview: I think there are things that need to change, and they’re not big changes.”

Charlotte Burns: And Allan Schwartzman, the co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a chairman at Sotheby’s.

Schwartzman quote from interview: “I think we’re seeing greater confidence in the art market, but it’s just precise and select.”

Charlotte Burns: We’re recording this at the end of a jam-packed week during which more than $2.2bn were spent on Impressionist, Modern American, post-war, and contemporary art, offered at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips auction houses.

If, at the end of this episode, you find yourself hungry for more auction analysis, then please pop over to our website where you can read our written analysis in the In Other Words newsletter at ArtAgencyPartners.com, where you can also subscribe.

Now, onto the show.

Nick and Allan, let’s begin with your overall impressions. It’s been a long week of auctions. How do you think they went overall?

Nicholas Maclean: I think the sales did very well. The comment that many people have been saying about them is that they were solid, but I think you said $2.2bn—

Charlotte Burns: —$2.2bn, yeah.

Nicholas Maclean: So, I mean, that surely is more than solid. The sale totals and percentages-sold were extremely good. I think there’s still good confidence in the market.

Charlotte Burns: Allan?

Allan Schwartzman: I would agree. I would also add that, certainly in the realm of the Impressionists and Modern sales, there were quite a number of extraordinary works that were once in a lifetime opportunities which performed very well. The contemporary sales were very active and healthy at all different prices levels.

At the same time, it became clear that the bidders were really holding tight once bidding went above a certain level in relation to the estimate. And there were incremental bids of an uncommonly low nature, when you got to higher price levels, whether it was in the hundreds of thousands, or the tens of millions. It sent a signal to me that buyers are being extra precise about what they want and what they’re prepared to pay for it.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: And consequently, bidding for some lots went on for a very long time, which gave a loss of momentum, in appearances, to otherwise quite healthy sales. So I think there was the feel, and then there was the reality of what the numbers show.

Charlotte Burns: So in a way, there was a sense of having to work a little bit harder to get there.

Allan Schwartzman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that is? Are there fewer buyers in the market?

Allan Schwartzman: I think they’re highly informed. They are clearly going into the room where they’re prepared to bid to, and the market’s gotten very selective. And the market does not want to feel pushed, either by the momentum of high level bidding or by estimates that are too toppy.

Nicholas Maclean: I would agree.

Charlotte Burns: Yes?

Nicholas Maclean: Allan’s right: I mean, people are more controlled and more disciplined than ever. And I think because so many works were third-party guaranteed, or had irrevocable bids, just meant that in certain cases, the life was taken out of the work before it was actually offered.

Charlotte Burns: So, let’s talk a little bit about guarantees. This is a controversial topic. Has been for a long time. There are very strong opinions on different sides of the spectrum and also confusion, which is one of the main criticisms leveled against guarantees.

Guarantees, for people who don’t understand, are essentially a system whereby somebody has guaranteed in advance to buy the work for a certain price, and that could be an in-house guarantee or that could be a third-party guarantee, and there’s all kinds of different deals that are made. The houses call them different things, and there are different symbols for each different one. Which also is part of the reason people get confused.

One school of thought is that as the market becomes increasingly sophisticated, then increased financialization is just inevitable. And there’s another school of thought that says, well, when you have too many guarantees, things feel set up. 

This year, whatever your views, was a record. According to The Art Newspaper there will have been more money laid out on guarantees this season than any other season.

What do you guys think about guarantees?

Nicholas Maclean: Look, I can understand why people want to consign a picture with a guarantee, because there’s huge risk if you don’t. Look at the painting by Hockney. Apparently, the owner was offered the opportunity to have a guarantee, didn’t take it, and the result of that was that there was a little nervousness about the level of the pricing. It ultimately that ended up being offered without a reserve to encourage as much bidding as possible, which is very unusual, obviously, for a work of that value.

Allan Schwartzman: This is a complex topic, and I think we’re in a very different moment for what a guarantee is and how it functions than when they were first introduced.

At the top end, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to source material that’s great. And there’s competition between the houses, there’s competition with private dealers and galleries. Often the only way to bring these works out are with a certainty of a kind of guarantee. When you have very top works in particular, oftentimes they go pretty close to the low estimate, and it seems like they go to the guarantor, which has been interpreted as a sign that the market is very thin at the top.

I would argue that in most of those cases, these are highly desirable works for which there is competition, but guarantee. So in effect, what in the room may look like it went on one bid to the guarantor, in truth, sometimes you’ve had this competition take place prior to it ever getting into the auction room.

Charlotte Burns: So, it’s an efficiency, you’re saying, essentially, that the market has worked out the right price; got to that price; arranged that deal; enacted that deal?

Allan Schwartzman: And the guarantor is somebody who is happy having the work if they get it at the guarantee, or they are happy to make money on it. So I don’t think the same degree of speculation is at the core of that as had been perceived earlier on.

Nicholas Maclean: I disagree with the efficiency. I think it’s a really inefficient way of doing it, because actually the reality is, what happens is, when we get asked to go to the houses to get their opinion, instantly— even though you may say look, we would like to have just a house guarantee, we don’t want you to go outside to ask anybody else—there still will be approaches to—

Charlotte Burns: Third parties—

Nicholas Maclean:  —Collectors and dealers outside. And suddenly, the work is burned. It needs to get that guarantee, because if not, everybody knows about it outside. And the people that the auction houses approach will be the people who have an interest in getting involved in third party guarantees, whereas there are many collectors who don’t have that interest at all and prefer to be offered work privately.

And so most of the very high value pictures are sold privately. It’s just a simple fact. If you own something, you usually want to do it very discreetly. You may not even know that you want to sell it, but you may have an approach from somebody who is willing to make a very high offer on that picture, and a private sale will take place, and it’s done without anybody necessarily knowing about it within the market.

I think there are things that need to change, and they’re not big changes. The individual lots which have had a third-party guarantee or an irrevocable bid applied to them, they should be announced before the lot as well, not just beginning of the sale. It’s almost ridiculous, the length of the list of numbers and the different types of guarantee, irrevocable bids… I mean, you know, you need to have a sort of glossary of terms with you to understand what it is.

And the other thing – at least 48 hours before the actual sale, all bets should be off. There should be no more guarantees before that time—

Charlotte Burns: —Why?

Nicholas Maclean: —Because it can change your view, how you’re going to bid as an advisor, and you sometimes don’t know that until the time of the sale.                                                             

Charlotte Burns: One thing with guarantees is—I think I’ve been writing about them for ten years now—it’s not ever been a subject that people agree on. Guarantees have been around for a while. They’ve come in and out of fashion.  It used to be typical to have five works in a 60-lot sale, and now you can have 35 lots in a 60-lot sale.

Is it inevitable that we’re just going have more guarantees—that we’re just in a period now where this is the way we do business? Or are we going see a shift again? Where are we in that?

Allan Schwartzman: There’s still quite a good number of top-level collectors who won’t seek a guarantee, who want to sell without giving away any of the upside when they have deep knowledge of the market, at least the market of the works they’re selling and confidence in their works. So, it’s not a given that most sellers would only sell with a guarantee, although often it scares out material that wouldn’t be in the market otherwise.

There are more people seeking to guarantee works than there’s work for them to guarantee.

Nicholas Maclean: Do you think that still will be the case as a result of this round? I mean, obviously the sales did very well, but if you break it down and you look at the number of people who ended up with a work where they maybe were more doing it for speculation, rather than for ownership. Or do think there’s enough people in the background wanting to get into the game?

Allan Schwartzman: I believe there are many more people who guaranteed works who are happy with the outcome than not. And ultimately, the stability of such a process really only works if you develop an ongoing relationship with clients.  And so, the increasing number of people seeking to guarantee works is, to me, an indication that there’s been more dependability for the guarantor than not.

Charlotte Burns: It’s also a sign that there is more familiarity. When I first started writing about guarantees, there were only a handful of guarantees because there were only a handful of people who the houses even really thought to reach out to, whereas there’s been a concerted effort on behalf of the houses over a period of time to deepen that pool and to do more business in that way.

So now, I think there’s just more familiarity. It used to be the same guys guaranteeing everything, and I think now there are different people who are involved in doing business in this different way, and there are just more options.

Allan Schwartzman: You had more people who were dealers or kind of collector-dealers leading or dominating the pool of guarantees, and you have more collectors now coming forward who are happy taking a guarantee on a work that they’re happy to own. So they wait—

Charlotte Burns: —They see it as another form of bidding, rather than dealing?

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, many of them I find don’t like it, though. They’d prefer just to buy the work. If I want own the work, I don’t want to get into some financial game.

If it’s the only way of owning that picture, then maybe a collector might say, “Okay, well, possibly that’s what I have to do.”

Charlotte Burns: Talking of the top lots, it felt thinner at the top for certain things. There were a couple of noticeable casualties in the evening sales at tens of millions of dollars. There was the Van Gogh in the Imps and Mods at Christie’s. There was the Marsden Hartley at Sotheby’s. What did you take from that? Were you surprised? Were they just too aggressively estimated? Were they pitched, for example, at mainland Chinese buyers who weren’t as present this season?

Nicholas Maclean: The Van Gogh was painted during his Paris period. And those works are not as desirable as the works when he went down to the South of France, and to me it felt as though that was pitched for the new Asian buyers, who were less apparent this time.

The reality is that it was just a very big price they were asking for the picture. It was a good painting, but just too much money. You are unlikely to have too many people who are going to spend that amount of money without doing their research to find out how it fits in to the rest of his oeuvre and for me, that was the reason that didn’t sell.

Allan Schwartzman: The Hartley, I think, is complex. We’re just at the beginning of a period in which great American masterworks of the 20th century and Latin masterworks are being fed into the mainstream European and American evening sales. The Hartley is an exceptional work of ideal subject and date by one of the great early 20th-century American Modernists. It is the last painting of its kind in private hands, meaning one where the frame is painted, and part of the composition. That’s an instance, I believe, where there was a big gap between an international market’s perception of value when one is looking at equivalent or like works coming out of Europe versus the United States, and so that’s principally still an American market at that price level. And so, this was an instance where that strategy was at the wrong value level for this particular market.

Charlotte Burns: Max Hollein, the Director of Met, he’d written for In Other Words about Europe and America, and essentially – I’m making his very nuanced argument too simple – but essentially had said that Europeans can’t quite understand Americans because they don’t really own any American painting, whereas Americans have loads of European painting. For me, as a European, I didn’t really know who Marsden Hartley was, I’m ashamed to say, until a couple years ago when David Salle mentioned him on a podcast. He’s just not someone that I was familiar with.

Allan Schwartzman: To me it was thrilling that the painting was in such a sale, precisely because of the style and content of the work. Having said that, Hartley is an especially American painter. The majority of his work is of American subjects, and American landscapes, and an American sense of isolation.

What I’ve been thinking about the last few days is that his intersection point with Europe was very narrow. And the ultimate strength and confidence in his work goes back to the American-ness rather than to its relationship to Cubism.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. This idea of expanding the canon, the auction alphabet, is something I want us to come back to, but I’d like to get there via a detour to taste.

Something that we discussed last podcast was that Modern works are much more appealing to today’s buyer than earlier 19th century works. It seems like we saw more of that this season – that those Pissaros and Renoirs are less appealing to buyers. Early Monets didn’t do as well as later Monets, which we saw last season. There was an abstract [Monet] snow scene that I think could fit well in a contemporary abstract collection. It looks different, it looks fresher, it looks more modern.

Nicholas Maclean: This is not a new thing. There was a show back in, I think it was 2000, at the MFA in Boston and at the Royal Academy [of Arts] in London, called “Monet and the 20th Century”. The influence of that exhibition was enormous on collectors and buyers, seeing that his late work had had an influence on the Abstract Expressionists – it was enormous.

Actually, good early ’70s Impressionists, or even late ’60s, are still very desirable. There’s a very small number of people for those. It was really more a case of the decorative Impressionists from the, particularly from the 1880s, which struggled this time.  

Honestly, I think it will return again. Obviously, the Russians aren’t buying, the Asians aren’t buying as much, and one could easily have been saying, “Well, are they enough to make a market?”

But there’s no doubt that American buyers and European buyers have been looking more towards great 20th-century painting, or painting that influences the 20th century. Obviously the three key artists, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin, are artists that still exist in good 20th-century collections as well. And along with, talking about Monet, obviously the series paintings and the early 20th-century works.

But I don’t think it’s the end of the market for traditional Impressionism – actually I think just the quality of the works that came up was just not quite good enough. It’s again, the old cliché of A+ sells for just so much more than A quality works.

Charlotte Burns: And that’s got closer than ever, that distinction—

Nicholas Maclean: —Yes.

Charlotte Burns: —We used to say, well, the difference between A and B, and then we said well the difference between A and B+, and now we’re at the difference between A and A+. It’s just getting increasingly focused on the crème de la crème.

Nicholas Maclean: It’s true, although there frankly weren’t that many A quality paintings, Impressionist paintings by Pissarro and Sisley or Renoir for example.

Charlotte Burns: Which is supply.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, exactly. So accordingly, this season’s Sotheby’s sale: the perception was that it did much better – I think the total was bigger – but certainly the sale did much better because of the quality, particularly of the early 20th century works. There was the Josefowitz’s collection which had hung for many years at the [The] Courtauld [Institute of Art] and included some really very good Fauve paintings. And the Kandinskys. And then there was some incredibly good German paintings. There was a Kokoschka which we tried to buy, underbid it.

Allan Schwartzman: Were you surprised that any works didn’t sell better than they did, or do you think that everything found its level?

Nicholas Maclean: The Pissarro that was at Christie’s, the street scene, I had thought that that might have made a higher price. They’re very rare indeed, and this is painted towards the end of his life and has not just a palate, but also there’s a sort of Modernist feel to it, looking at urban life. And I thought that would have attracted more competition.

It did fine, but I think that maybe summarizes what we were saying again, that there was maybe not quite the competition. You would have hoped in the past to have Russian buyers, Chinese buyers essentially showing interest in this area.

I thought that, in general, the very good German pictures actually did very well.

Charlotte Burns: Is the buying audience as broad for German turn-of-the-century artists as it is for French turn-of-the-century artists? Is it more specialist?

Nicholas Maclean: I actually think it’s become stronger. We have more collectors looking for very good German, either Expressionist or Neue Sachlichkeit [New Realism], paintings than we do people looking to buy Fauve paintings and that’s definitely – I wouldn’t say it’s a change, that happened probably 10 years ago – but I think that the Fauve market is definitely thinner. But if a great Cubist painting comes along, there’s still a good market for it. It’s not deep but there’s—

Charlotte Burns: —I suppose Neue Sachlichkeit looks so modern as well. You could hang a Neue Sachlichkeit painting by Otto Dix next to John Currin and it would be fine.

Nicholas Maclean: Quite              

Charlotte Burns: It would make total sense. You wouldn’t really be able to tell other than the dress of the—

Nicholas Maclean: —Quite. Dix or Grosz, yes.

Charlotte Burns: So Allan, we were talking about shifts in taste in the Impressionist and Modern, do you see anything similar happening in the post-war and contemporary?

Allan Schwartzman: Well, I think there were some little stories, not big stories in that regard. For example, in last few years, we’ve seen a great increase in the interest and the performance at auction of such abstract artists, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Lewis, Hans Hoffman, who had been viewed as somewhat out of date a couple of decades ago. And yet we saw a kind of leveling off. We saw excellent paintings sell at very good prices, but we didn’t see a continuation of the rise that we’ve been seeing season by season. So is that a momentary pause or has the market decided that that’s where this market is going to stay for a while? That was a little story.

Another little story is Christopher Wool, who has been a mainstay of the contemporary auctions for quite a number of years. There were a good number of works spread around, all of which performed at a more conservative level – those that sold – than they had previously.

Charlotte Burns: Were you surprised by that?

Allan Schwartzman: I was surprised by that. But having said that, I think there’ve been so many Wools that have sold over the last number of years at prices so beyond what the market had perceived as value a relatively short time ago, that I think it’s very natural in virtually every market to find moments of pause, where you have a saturation. And I think this is that moment for Chris, which is probably very healthy for his market in the long run.

Nicholas Maclean: While Allan was talking, I was just having a look at some of the works that came up and whether, actually, the market really has suffered, or it’s just actually equalized. There was a painting, simply called, Fuckem (1992), on a smaller scale, which obviously limits the number of potential buyers. But it was extremely good of its type. It was probably one of the best word paintings, and—

Allan Schwartzman: What did it bring?

Nicholas Maclean: It brought $6.5m plus premium—

Allan Schwartzman: —And what’s the dimension of it?

Nicholas Maclean: It’s 52” by 36”, so it’s quite small.

Allan Schwartzman:  Yes. So small scale.

Nicholas Maclean: But it was a very lively surface, a lot of drips. Whereas Run Dog Run Dog (1991), which did fine, it actually only had, I think it sold to the third party. There was potentially one other party, I saw a bidder who looked as though they might have added another hundred thousand on top. But it was still a good price. Because yes, it was a good word painting, but it didn’t have a particularly, again, lively surface. It was rather more precisely graphic. I think the one I was probably a bit surprised by was Feet Don’t Fail Me Now (1995), which was in the Sotheby’s—

Allan Schwartzman: —In the Stone collection.

Nicholas Maclean: Exactly, yes. Which made $7.6m plus premium. And that was an enamel from 1995. And I think that was a good buy, actually. I think those enamels from that date are very underpriced. Particularly when we’re looking at works of the same scale from 2005, the works on canvas. I mean, they’re very different works.

Maybe there’s signs that it’s slightly slowed down or we’ve reached a peak. But it’s quality based, again. Do you agree?

Allan Schwartzman: I would have two thoughts on this. One is that there’s a significant number of collectors of ’50s masterworks, for example, who have been collecting Christopher Wool in depth. And I think that those principal buyers have gotten the Wools that they want. And so, they’re being quiet at this point.

My other point is that there’s no artist I’ve seen in the contemporary market over the last number of decades who shot up to meteoric success, where there weren’t moments of pause, or dips, and so on. I think it’s a normal part of a cycle. I think that price for the small-scale word piece, while one could well have imagined it selling for more, is a very healthy price—

Nicholas Maclean: —Very good.

Allan Schwartzman: —given the scale of it. So, to me it doesn’t tell a big story. It just tells a story that it’s a moment of pause.

Another little story that I noticed in the contemporary sales. The extraordinary performance of the Jacob Lawrence painting.

Jacob Lawrence, this is a mid-century artist for the most part. It is historically more connected to the history of American art than of post-war contemporary art. The fact that the market recognized the exceptional quality of that work and the importance of this artist, and I would also add to that, probably nowadays, the rarity of a great painting coming to auction, all contributed to a very high amount of competition for a painting by an artist that people simply had never seen in an evening sale before.

And what that says to me is that this newfound surge of interest in collecting the work of African American artists, while initially rooted in the primary market and contemporary artists, is now going deeper into a history. And that says something about a deepening of historical appreciation for such work.

We saw it similarly in a little way with Robert Colescott. His work is so critical to and resonant with some of the artists of African descent who have attracted the greatest amount of interest in the contemporary market such Kerry James Marshall, and others. So now we saw one in the evening sale at Christie’s and one in the day sale at Sotheby’s sell for record prices for the artist and at numbers that are substantially greater than the prices at which the estate had recently been selling them.

Charlotte Burns: The Colescott in the evening sale at Christie’s, estimated between $250,000 and $350,000, sold for $912,000. If you’re looking in the context of the market data that we produced in In Other Words, the three-month study with Artnet looking at the representation of African American artists, one of the stories that came out in the interviews that we’d done was that so many contemporary artists who are having success are themselves bringing focus backwards on artists who influenced them, like you were talking about with Colescott and Kerry James Marshall. And when you look at the market data, the best performing artists are the contemporary artists. But they’re bringing that focus back, whether that’s through gallery programs by saying, “Well, these people influenced me and that’s the context for my work and so can you consider that?”

And with Jacob Lawrence, the sale of The Businessman (1947), which Nick’s dealership was bidding on, underbidding on, there was a lot of competition for that work. It was estimated at $1.5m to $2m and ultimately sold for $6.2m. That single sale more than doubled the total auction history over the past 10 years for work by Jacob Lawrence. Up until that point it had been $5.1m dollars, which is also to do with supply. But it’s about that confidence in the market and the confidence that that artist could be placed in an evening sale, have that demand, and sell for that price.

Allan Schwartzman: I think it’s more than a story of supply. I believe that that same painting, even a year ago, would not have attracted anywhere near that level of competition. I think that if one looks at the work of Jacob Lawrence within the history of American painting of the 20th century, it represents what has principally been viewed as a relatively conservative and therefore provincial kind of representational painting in a period where abstraction was far more of the vanguard.

It takes many decades sometimes to recognize, in the work of somebody like a Jacob Lawrence, or we could even say of artists somewhat later than him such as Faith Ringgold, or a Barkley Hendricks for that matter, or even Romare Beardon, to recognize that works that may have looked out of sync with their time, make a huge amount of sense today.

Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you about this idea of markets and auctions being in sync with general significance of artists? What happened with Nauman this season? We’ve been talking about Nauman for a while, there’s a great show on currently at MoMA/MoMA PS1 that came from Basel, people are saying it’s one of the best shows they’ve seen. It’s doing a lot to clarify his significance as an artist. People were kind of hopeful that this would be the moment where the market began to recognize that. And privately, there have been some good prices for neons. Dealers are telling me that they’re seeing multimillion dollar sales of neons. There’s been some big, important works on papers that have been selling fairly well. We didn’t necessarily see that at the auctions. What happened, do you think?

Allan Schwartzman: I can’t think of another artist as significant as Bruce Nauman since Bruce Nauman. His influence over decades of artists, particularly dealing with psychologically driven work, is huge.

Having that said, there isn’t a lot of material that comes to public market. There have been extraordinary pieces, very consistently sold at very substantial prices, including primary market works, but they go right away into very important collections that have been seeking them out for long time.

Allan Schwartzman: So what shows up at auction tends to be more random. It just so happens that the neons are done in multiples, which is not so common for Bruce Nauman. Even when it comes to some bronzes.

It’s hard for a market that is mostly painting-driven, or sculpture-driven in a more traditional notion of what sculpture is, to wrap itself around an artist like Bruce Nauman.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: The new market, new buyers who have emerged in the last, let’s say, 10 or 12 years, who have been driving the market in general at auction, they don’t know Bruce Nauman. They haven’t seen the work. And so there really is not a frame of reference for it. I don’t think it’s a reflection of his significance or his market. It’s just of his auction market.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, and as you said, it’s just the neon works that came to the market. And obviously multiples, which are rather, probably and ultimately less interesting for the true Nauman collector.

But also, the fact that the Basel show was extraordinary, I think everybody was a little bit surprised by the MoMA leg, which frankly was not quite as strong. It’s obviously split into two locations. Your audience you’re probably looking for as potential new collectors is going to be an American audience, and I’m not sure his work was displayed quite as it could have been. But is that a reason for the market not doing quite as well? I think it’s more about the material. And I think that, Allan said, there’s so many great works that end up being sold privately, that we don’t even hear about.

Charlotte Burns: So it hasn’t translated.

Nicholas Maclean: No, not yet. And even artists who maybe have got a broader appeal, somebody like – you and I were talking about Brice Marden, that’s yet to be tested at auction, but the market is incredibly strong privately. And that is, you know, there are certain artists that fall into that category. There’s just that, you have an auction and private market, and there’s really no overlap—

Charlotte Burns: —Yes. Never the twain shall meet.

Allan Schwartzman:  —I would also add that neon, while a very important material of Nauman’s, is one of many materials. It’s the closest he gets to something that looks like a painting—

Charlotte Burns:  —Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: —It hangs on the wall. It’s relatively flat. It has imagery, color, words.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: However, they don’t deliver what painting collectors ordinarily seek. Light is often a problem for collectors. Most people I know who own a Flavin only turn them on when there’s company, for example.

Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (1972), which is a really important work, is perhaps… the collections to whom that’s a very significant work already own this. And therefore, they’re not going to be buying three or four other neons of a similar type. So it’s also a kind of disproportionate representation of the artist and the market.

Nicholas Maclean: And the owners of works by Nauman rarely sell—

Charlotte Burns: —Yes. They love the work.

Nicholas Maclean: —And they usually give. You know, to museums.

Charlotte Burns:  Right.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: And most of the works, the major works that have been in the primary market in recent years, have gone straight to museums.

Charlotte Burns: So, to take us away from art, which probably isn’t a good idea, to the numbers, which may be less interesting. One thing we talked about a little bit before we started was the breakdown of numbers.

I thought it was interesting, and we were discussing whether it actually is interesting, that there was a sort of shift in the value of one of the auctions. So, typically with the auction houses, what we’ve seen over the past several seasons is that when we break down where the volume of activity was, it’s  obviously in the lower ranges. And then the value comes, typically, in the evening sales, for works that sold for more than $10 million each. And then usually, the totals of each individual house really just rest on whether they had eight of those works or ten of those works or two of those works. This season, what was quite interesting was that that was the case for Christie’s and Phillips. But at Sotheby’s this time it was quite interesting because it was the only evening sale in which the majority of the value did not come from the high end works.

There were works priced over $10m: seven lots made a total of $120.8m. But, the value of the sale came from the works priced between $5m to $10m: where 21 lots sold for a total of $155.2m, so 43% of the value came from 32% of the lots.

I just thought that was an interesting fact. We’ve been talking a lot about the masterpiece market. We’ve been talking about a lot for the competition at works above that $10 million range. And then here was a sale where the value came from works that were priced at a lower level. And sold well, and there was, you know, fairly strong demand on those works, too. Is that just what the auction house got for the season? Is that indicative of a shift in buyer demand? Is that because the super high end expensive stuff is selling? You were saying earlier, Nick, that there’ve been sales above $20m on the private market for things. Is that just a fluke? What do you think?

Nicholas Maclean: I think most of the major works that are sold in the market have sold privately, works above $20 million… Allan, have you got a view about why this happened?

Allan Schwartzman: I think it’s in part a supply issue, and in part a focal issue. Meaning that there’s a much wider population of collectors who are very happy buying in the $1m to $8m or so range. And it’s easier to source there.

When you look at the kinds of works that sell in a post-war and contemporary sale at a very high level, are mainstay artists for whom there’s been quite a flow over the last 15 or so years. And so, in some instances, you reach saturation amongst a population of collectors seeking that kind of work. And you have a great increase in collectors at these seven-figure price points in the contemporary market who weren’t there a few years ago.

And so, there’s a hunger for new stories, for artists who had been under-recognized. For looking in places we hadn’t been looking. Maybe if there was a continual flow of great de Koonings and Pollocks from the ’50s and ’40s, we might see a different story, but the supply is quite dry.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, it’s still curious that there was such a difference between the two houses. I don’t know whether it’s because Sotheby’s were able to get a lot of those works in the $5m to $10m because Christie’s focused so much on the big things? And maybe because Ebsworth was a big distraction—

Charlotte Burns: —It was interesting because the values were, you know, on a par, really. I mean Christie’s sold 41 of 48 lots for $357.6m, and Sotheby’s sold 63 works for $362.6m. So, they were different approaches to a sale. I should say, Phillips sold 31 works for a total $88.5m. So, I think maybe it’s different approaches. But I thought that was quite interesting because we haven’t—

Allan Schwartzman: —I’m not sure if it’s so much… I mean, in part it’s different approaches, and in part it’s circumstance. I would say the majority, if not all of the works that sold at very high numbers in the contemporary sales were competitive property. 

At the same time, Sotheby’s has been looking very closely at that mid-market area, where there is more opportunity for sourcing, and where the profit margins tend to be greater.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Nicholas Maclean: But it’s notable also, going through here, how many third party guarantees there are for the works up to $10m. Does that mean that Sotheby’s is going out more to entice people to sell, with a third party, knowing that they can get a third party behind it? Which obviously is very lucrative business, and certainly the lower the value, obviously, the higher the commissions anyway, the higher the premium. So, maybe that’s behind it. It’s a sort of financial decision. Maybe—

Allan Schwartzman: —Well, I think they are, more often than not, happy to mitigate risk.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: Even if it seems a relatively low risk. At the same time, there are a number of consignors who didn’t want guarantees. We’ve found recently an uncommon situation where potential buyers come forward close to the sale and want to make a guarantee on a work that wasn’t guaranteed. Or produce an IB. And sometimes the seller reacts to it, and sometimes they don’t.

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

Charlotte Burns: I was talking to dealers about the sales, over the last few days, and everybody thought the sales were good. They all had very good results. There was a lot of money spent, and there was a sensible market. But there was also a sense that perhaps we are in a transition moment from one cycle into another. People are more cautious. Things are going for lots of money, there’s still a very strong market, there’s lots of interest. Tastes are expanding, people want new things. But that it’s not exactly the same. It’s a moment of transition and change. Do you think that that’s true?

Allan Schwartzman: I don’t know if I would exactly say that. I think that it looks or feels that way more than it is that way. And a lot of that has to do with the pacing of the auctions. And just the reality of bidding. I do think that as a market gets smarter, and this is clearly a very well informed market, there just aren’t that many things that are true masterpieces. So, the market gets much, much more selective when you get to these upper numbers.

And what I see, if I look at the totality of these sales, particularly of the 20th century and the 21st century, is that there was a lot of really healthy activity at all different price levels and in all different realms of taste. So I think if you step back from this and actually start to look at the numbers, you might come to a very different conclusion than maybe that feeling. I mean, there’s been an unsettled feeling for a while now, about where things are, but we’re in a world where there’s an unsettled feeling.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: So I think that, in comparison to political and broader economic uncertainty, I think we’re seeing greater confidence in the art market, but it’s just precise and select.

Nicholas Maclean: I would agree. And I think that it’s very hard for auction house specialists just to keep pulling rabbits out of a hat.

Nicholas Maclean: If you keep trying to form sales which have a huge number of masterpieces, you’re leaning on a lot of collectors to provide those works.

You’re leaning on a lot of… you know, obviously having to have a lot of third party guarantees. And generally, they’re not actually very profitable, those sales. I mean, I would say that that sale that Sotheby’s had, that evening sale, was extremely profitable. I mean, they had, you know, exactly in the right area, that sort of $1m to $10m, is a very good area to focus on. And as Allan said, you try and get those very high value works, and they are incredibly competitive. And even with the guarantees, it’s the same thing. And ultimately, it took something as strange as having an $81 million picture without a reserve to essentially, in theory, buck that trend. But I don’t believe it did.

Charlotte Burns: The Hockney sold for a record and it’s a new record for a living artist, of course. And it’s the work that Nick was mentioning, that didn’t have a reserve, didn’t have a guarantee, came naked to auction. And people didn’t really know what was going to happen with that. But we’ve all been expecting a rise in the Hockey market – in fact, we wrote about it in March 2017 – waiting for one of these great paintings to come to auction. And one did, and it sold very, very well. Which is—

Allan Schwartzman: I would say it’s not that one did, it’s that this one did. This is a particular painting that the market’s been after for a while. And it’s precisely in recognition that this has been an undervalued market and that that particular painting is a definitive masterpiece.

It’s the ultimate Hockney that one would want. In subject matter, in paint quality, in date. And I would venture to say that the perception of the value of that painting doubled in less than a year. And that had to do with an increased confidence in a market willing to pay premium prices for the top, top quality works for which there’s no equal.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. It’s actually quite funny, because the Hockney article that we wrote, almost two years ago, that was the lead image we chose. When we said, you know, if a great work like this were to come to auction it would set a record. And as you say, in those intervening almost two years, the market has just gained more confidence in that.

Nicholas Maclean: And therefore, it was a safe bet for the owner. To know that if you put the work without reserve—

Charlotte Burns: —Yes. It was a great painting.

Nicholas Maclean: —You said it was going to find the right price level. As Allan says, it is one of his greatest masterpieces. And Hockney has never been quite so sought after as he is now.

Allan Schwartzman: I guess a slightly unexpected part of that is what appetite there was for an explicitly homoerotic painting. For which I don’t think there’s any precedent at these price levels.

Charlotte Burns: No.

Nicholas Maclean: True.

Charlotte Burns: Well, let’s save that for next time. Thank you so much for being my guests, both of you. This has been really interesting. Anybody who wants to know more, head to our website and you can read even more auction analysis. Thank you very much.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you.

Nicholas Maclean: Thank you.

 

 

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