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Making Sense of NYC’s $1.5 Billion Art Auction Week

Andy Warhol's “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” (1963) sold for $81.9M. (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” (1963) sold for $81.9M. (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Listen up: $1.5 billion!

That’s mostly what you’re going to hear about this week’s auctions of Contemporary art. In five days, fewer than a thousand people traded $1.5 billion for scraps of canvas, stretched across wood frames and daubed (mostly) with oil paint.

It’s a lot of money in a very short period of time concentrated among a very small group. The art market draws attention these days because it is such an apt metaphor for our globally skewed economic times. But the art market is, as Warren Buffett likes to say, a voting machine, not a weigh machine. The art market measures the popularity and distribution of certain artists’ work. It doesn’t — and cannot — measure the work’s value.

So let’s take away the distraction of the money. Once we’ve turned down the volume, there’s a lot we can learn about what’s going on in the art market today. The first thing is that like many other industries, the Contemporary art auction market is dominated by one company. Christie’s is far and away the dominant player in the Contemporary art market selling in the last two auction seasons (May and November) consistently just shy of $1 billion each seasons across four or five sales. That’s twice the value of its competitors combined. On the battlefield of Contemporary art, Christie’s is the US Defense Department deploying drones and superior air power to keep its rivals at bay. Like the US military, Christie’s secret weapon is its willingness to outspend its rivals to achieve these results. The art advisor and newsletter author, Josh Baer, estimates that Christie’s spent $420 million on Contemporary art guarantees to Sotheby’s $175m. Money alone isn’t enough. The experts have to guarantee the right works, the ones that will excite the buyers and bring out the bids. There’s no way to know which house made money and which house lost it providing guarantees but the general impression from all the players in this incestuous little world of art buyers, advisors, and dealers is that Christie’s is getting a better return on its money. In the art world, Christie’s is George Soros or Julian Robertson. How long their streak can last is anyone’s guess.

Here we are talking about money again. And we promised we wouldn’t. So let’s look at the art. Perhaps the biggest story of the week is Cy Twombly’s ascendancy into the highest market tier. When Christie’s sold one of his echt images, a blackboard painting owned by his former assistant and now head of the artist’s foundation, for nearly $70M that put the artist in the same market category as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, and Pablo Picasso. That’s a truly astonishing moment because Twombly has long been an artist’s artist and a connoisseurs passion but not a market darling.

Other artists who cemented their market gains this week were Christopher Wool who saw nine works trade hands at bigger and bigger prices. Some of those prices were achieved by flipping works bought before the Guggenheim’s retrospective — which some say was driven by trustees who wanted to see their taste validated — which clearly has provided the artist with market momentum. It’s easy to claim that major museum retrospectives have a direct effect on a artist’s market. But the recent market trajectory of John Chamberlain suggests otherwise. This week Sotheby’s continued to develop the artists market with several strong sales. But they came after a disappointing patch of sales that followed the sculptor’s own Guggenheim show. Instead, Sotheby’s seeded the market with sales from the Dia collection and followed this week with more eye-catching prices that will surely attract the attention of global collectors who, for better or worse, get their art history from auction results.

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(via christies.com)

Elaine Sturtevant too got her market kudos shortly after her death earlier this year at the age of 89 and coinciding with the opening of her MoMA retrospective. Her pastiches of Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein lit up Christie’s and Phillips respectively. While Roy Lichtenstein is hardly a new discovery, the past week saw more and more varied works by the artist on the block.

All three houses made runs at the Robert Ryman market. He did fine but just couldn’t seem to impress anyone. With a few exceptions like the flaming U, “Untitled” (2006), at Phillips, the Wade Guyton market also seems to have found its level a bit below where the sellers and auction houses hoped it would.

Other key names had blah weeks. Although Andy Warhol topped the charts, his market seemed tired and lacking in energy. The few bidding wars that broke out were for marginal works like a dark blue Mona Lisa or a couple of diamond dust shoe works. Gerhard Richter’s market-defining abstracts continue to sell but these are more of a story when they don’t set new price levels. And they didn’t.

Overall the Contemporary Art market might be reaching something best described as maturity. The surprise is that there were so few surprises. Even the fliptastic young artists featured at Phillips like Oscar Murillo, Alex Israel, and Lucien Smith failed to impress.

Marion Maneker is the primary author of Art Market Monitor and the host of the Artelligence podcast.

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