Opinion

Christie’s Top Lots Flop at Auction, Raising Speculation About Market Bubble

This years’s total sales were nearly half those of last year, which some critics say is a symptom of a bloated market with overly ambitious estimates. Even a Van Gogh painting went unsold this year.

Pablo Picasso’s “La Lampe,” which sold for $29,562,500 (all images courtesy Christie’s)

After a surprisingly busy summer in the auction world, experts predicted that the autumn months would bring an avalanche of income. Experts project that this week alone will bring in more than $1.8 billion in sales. But November’s semiannual week of mega-sales began on Sunday with a whimper at Christie’s Impressionist and modern art sale, which failed to meet its estimate by $25.8 million. The overall gross of $279.2 million was 42 percent less than last year’s profits of $479.3 million.

However, there are indicators that last year’s successes may have been a lark propelled by the blockbuster sale of Salvator Mundi. This year’s profits are closer to those in 2016, which may indicate a market correction. Indeed, the Christie’s auction sold 52 of its 61 lots, which strikes experts as thoroughly average. More eyebrow-raising is the auction house’s failure to sell many of its top lots, which included headlining works by Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. Perhaps the biggest stumble, Van Gogh’s “Coin de jardin avec papillons” (1887) went unsold, failing to achieve its high $40 million estimate. The pricing was likely affected by last year’s Van Gogh painting, “Labourer dans un champ” (1889), which sold for $81.3 million.

Max Carter, the senior vice president of the Impressionist and modern art department, told The Art Newspaper that last night’s estimate for the Van Gogh was “ambitious,” but he remained confident that the work would sell soon.

Claude Monet, “Le bassin aux nymphéas” (1919), which sold for $31,812,500

Critics have long-awaited the market’s bubble to burst, and are eager to see how the remainder of this week’s auctions will play out for companies like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Summer and the early months of autumn are usually the slow seasons for the auction world, but we’ve already seen abnormally large auction sales thanks to the much-publicized sales of a self-shredding Banksy, an “artificial intelligence” painting, and an Assyrian relief. Arguably, this activity could have sucked some of the attention away from the current auction season.

Early speculation from the lackluster Impressionist and modern art sale legitimizes the market’s fear that Asian buyers are currently reluctant to buy at auction given the tighter enforcement of capital controls by the Chinese government and the escalating trade war between the US and China, according to Bloomberg News.

Adrien Meyer, Auctioneer and Co-Chairman of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department hammers down on the top lot of the sale

But that’s not the takeaway from the many experts on-hand at yesterday’s Christie’s auction. Margaret CarriganThe Art Newspaper‘s deputy art market editor, was present at Sunday night’s auction at Christie’s. She tells Hyperallergic that the few top-lot flops are less indicative of the market as a whole and more symptomatic of Christie’s overconfidence in their pricing. “A minor dial-down on the estimate for that Van Gogh, for instance, might have gone a long way to securing a bidder during the sale,” she speculates. “But ultimately those unsold works will likely find buyers and quickly, so I doubt the bubble will burst this season.”

Moreover, it’s not like Christie’s lacked for successes yesterday evening. Picasso’s “Femme assise (Françoise)” (1953) earned $2.9 million, far above its $1.2 million estimate. Even a gouache magazine cover by Surrealist Salvador Dalí, titled “Adolescence” (1941) netted a solid $1.5 million.

The Picasso previously sold at auction in November 2004 for $444,300, which makes its new sale roughly a 37 percent increase over the course of fourteen years. Crunching the numbers, that means that the painting accrued $53,978 for every one of the fourteen years it was off the market.

In fact, Picasso was the predictable champion of the night’s sale, accounting for 13 of the works sold. Still, many were sold at the lower ends of their estimates. His “Lampe” (1931) depicting the artist’s young lover Marie-Therese Walter, realized a $29.6 million price tag against its estimate between $25 million and $35 million.

The top lot sold was Monet’s “Le bassin aux nymphaés” (1919), sold for $28 million ($31.8 million with fees) to an anonymous Asian buyer by phone, also below it’s $30 million to $50 million estimate.

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