Report from New York: An analysis of the May art market

Monday, December 18, 2017

What have we learnt from the recent auctions in New York and the main art fairs - Spring Masters, Frieze and Art New York?

In short, we have learnt that there is still excellent demand for good quality works of art but a lack of available masterpieces and top quality works in general resulted in much lower sales totals than May 2015. Auctions saw good sales rates – the percentage of lots sold - and the art fairs were busy, with Frieze in particular reporting great results. Overall, the market has become less heated, which in an election year is predictable especially after the economic repercussions of the oil price. In the words of one of the best commentators on the market, Judd Tully, auctioneers and dealers were 'faced with a more discriminating market fixated on both quality and value'.

Commentators concentrate for their headlines on auction results as the main barometer of the market, given the transparency of the sales figures, and it is true that sales volume retracted to the levels on 2011-2012. One significant reason for that was that consignments were made during January and February when the world economy was jittery.

We are pleased to give here a brief synopsis of the week's results, but do call us if you have any questions about trends or you want advice about which market to follow. Ray Waterhouse, now a resident of New York, was joined by Jonathan Dodd and Adrian Biddell from our London gallery, and so we can all give you a personal interpretation of the week's results.

Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern evening sale kicked off the week. The sale could have been more edited as some lots belonged more to a Day sale, and some estimates should have been less ambitious. But the result was perfectly respectable, with some standout prices such as the $10.66m for the beautiful Signac of St Tropez, the rare Fauve Vlaminck at $16.37m and the sale's top lot – the marble by Rodin at $20.4m. The only major casualty was the Fauve seascape by Andre Derain.

Paul Signac, 'Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez'; Sold for $10.66m.

Auguste Rodin, 'L'éternel Printemps'; Sold for $20.4m.

With Sotheby's having dipped their toe into the water first, by the time Christie's turn came up later in the week, the mood in the market had become less jumpy. Collective breaths held at the start of the sales had been released, and respiration was back to normal. In part, as a result, Christie's returned a very strong 90% sell rate in the category.

Traditional measures in the two sales came in paintings in the form of Monet, Picasso and Magritte, and in sculpture in the form of Rodin, Moore and Giacometti. But in fact the real lessons were to be learnt from the ladies: Camille Claudel, historically viewed as merely the student, muse and model for Rodin; Barbara Hepworth, so often seen as working in the shadow of the omniscient Moore, and Frida Kahlo, condemned for years to strive in the yoke of another dominant male, her one time husband Diego Rivera.

Camille Claudel, 'La Valse ou Les valseurs, grand modèle'; Sold for $725,000.

Picasso at Sotheby's at the start of the week had taken a bit of a drubbing. Of the 8 works offered on the Monday evening only 4 sold, though this was a reflection of the high estimates. The Picasso market duly rebounded a few days later, not least because Christie's had the stand out work of '69: 'Homme assis', which steadied the market when it sold for $8.5m. Indeed the result set in motion two further strong prices for oils from the same decade, completing a sell rate of 9 out 10 for the artist that evening.

Prices for Monet, in contrast, marched serenely on throughout the week. A solid price for Christie's 'Le basin au nymphéas' of 1919 ($27m), and an equally solid if unexciting price for the classic sailing boats on the river: 'Au Petit-Gennevilliers' of 1874 ($11.3m). Bidding at Sotheby's on the two landscapes of the 1880s took off. The first of 1884 driven by a very attractive estimate ($3-5m) and a vibrant palette, sold for just shy of $10m. The second exceeding its top estimate to achieve $7m. With works like these of the 1880s proving so strong, it makes classic early Monet painted in the first flush of true Impressionism such as the 1874 riverscape at Christie's look tantalisingly undervalued.

It was a strong week for sculpture with the record for Rodin mentioned earlier and also the record of $5.4m for Barbara Hepworth's 'Sculpture with Colour (Eos)'. Giacometti and Moore did very well. Frida Kahlo not only broke her own world record, but achieved a new record for any artist from Latin America: 'Dos desnudos en el bosque' sold for $8m.

Barbara Hepworth, 'Sculpture with Colour (Eos)'; Sold for $5.4m.

Frida Kahlo, 'Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma)'; Sold for $8m.

There were strong results in the Post-War and Contemporary field. Christie's sale achieved $318.4m with just 8 out of 60 lots failing to sell, with Sotheby's at $242m where only 2 lots failed. One Japanese buyer, Yusaka Maezawa, contributed almost $100m to sales proceeds, highlighted by the $57.3m for the huge Basquiat at Christie's. Bacon did well, with his 'Two Studies for a Self Portrait' from 1970 making almost $35m – it had sold in 1970 to the vendor netting a very tidy profit. Cy Twombly's rare to the market 'Untitled (New York City)' made $36.6m. It was also a great week for Christopher Wool and Richard Prince.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Untitled'; Sold for $57.3m.

Cy Twombly, 'Untitled (New York City)'; Sold for $36.6m.

The art fairs were dominated by Frieze. Tickets for some days were sold out to the fair that many commentators thought would never work, situated as it is on Randall's Island – far more difficult to access than London's equivalent in Regent's Park. From all accounts, sales overall were robust and showed the real enthusiasm for acquiring Contemporary art in New York.

Our gallery took part in Spring Masters, the fair at the Park Avenue Armory, which has recently joined forces with Maastricht's TEFAF. From October 2016, there will be two New York fairs a year under TEFAF's umbrella. This version of Spring Masters was not yet up to the quality of TEFAF but showed great improvement on the previous two fairs by the same organisers, and we sold some works and met some great new clients.

Expanding our reach in New York in addition to our gallery on Madison Avenue, we also took part in Art New York at Pier 94. This was a large show of Contemporary art and was a disappointment for many exhibitors. Access to this location is not easy and the fair does not have the outreach of Frieze. We sold well, making new clients for Bernie Taupin, Jean-Francois Rauzier and Kim Keever, and hope that next year the organiser is able to bring the exhibitors more clients.

Do call or e-mail us for a more personal interpretation.

Ray Waterhouse – ray@fineartbrokers.com
Jonathan Dodd - jonathan@fineartbrokers.com
Adrian Biddell - adrian@fineartbrokers.com

www.fineartbrokers.com / telephone +1 212 717 9100