Today’s art markets are a paradise for bargain hunters

Tamara de Lempicka’s Pink Tunic
Tamara de Lempicka’s Pink Tunic sold for $13.4m

Now is an ideal time for collectors to go shopping at the art auctions. 

All eyes were on New York earlier this month for its week-long series of contemporary and modern art sales. The sales are a highlight in the auction calendar, when a reading for the health of the art market is taken. The verdict this year seems to have been “not great, but not terrible either”.

Part of the problem was that last November David Hockney stole the show. The British artist’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) became the world’s most expensive artwork by a living artist when it sold for $90.3m at Christie’s. This year there were fewer big-ticket items. Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII, from 1977, sold for $30.1m (including fees) and Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), by Ed Ruscha, sold for $52.5m – the only work to reach $50m.

The big three auction houses of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips took in 31.5% less than last year, according to London-based art-market research firm ArtTactic. Sales totalled $1.1bn across the five headline evening sales. That’s around $330m less than the $1.4bn from the same five auctions the year before, says Art News, “reminding us all of what an outsize role expectations play in our interpretations of this ever-shifting market”.

It could have been worse. A few months back, when the auction houses were still in their consigning phase, fears of recession looked likely to keep guarantors away, as Abby Schultz notes in Barron’s Penta. That’s a bearish sign because the presence of guarantors – third parties who agree to buy lots if they fail to sell at auction – injects confidence into the market. In the end, and late in the day, that didn’t happen. The guarantors rode to the rescue once it became clear demand was stronger than anticipated. Still, as ArtTactic says, the market for auction guarantees “is now pretty much deciding the outcome at the top of the art market, and it looks like the guarantors are increasingly getting jittery”. Whether they will be around next autumn remains to be seen.

Savvy bidders move in

There was also some good news. The sell-through rate (a measure of the strength of buying) came in at 91.9%, says ArtTactic. Anything over 90% is a sign of “a very healthy market”, as Todd Levin, of Levin Art Group in New York, tells Barron’s Penta. One explanation was the readiness of sellers to cut their prices. “Savvy bidders figured out that much of the art could be had at a discount, so they went shopping,” says Kelly Crow in The Wall Street Journal. Phillips had been looking for $7m for Joan Miró’s Catalan Farmer Worried About Passing a Flight of Birds (1952), but settled for $3.8m (minus fees); Pablo Picasso’s 1934 Nudes was picked up by the guarantor for $9.9m. Sotheby’s had wanted $12m. The market “looks like a bargain-hunter’s paradise”, says Crow.

The trend in buying up works by overlooked artists was also present. New records were set for 28 artists, including Ruth Asawa, Carrie Mae Weems and Julie Curtiss. Tamara de Lempicka’s Jazz Age-era Pink Tunic (1927) was in high demand, eventually selling for $13.4m, with fees, at Sotheby’s – well above its $8m high estimate. “In general though,” says Melanie Gerlis in the FT, “a recalibrated market of lower values was the norm.”


Katsuwaka of the Dawn Lagoon Computer says “Yippee!”

A computer-painted artwork sold for a “staggering” $432,500 – 43 times its $10,000 high estimate – a little more than a year ago, says Caroline Goldstein on Artnet News. But judging by the latest sale of works created by artificial intelligence (AI), it would seem human artists can rest easy for now.

Two works by Obvious, the Paris-based collective behind last year’s AI portrait, had a “decidedly lacklustre performance” at a contemporary art day sale with Sotheby’s in New York this month. La Baronne de Belamy (2018) only just met its low estimate after 25 seconds of bidding to sell for $25,000 (with fees). “Within the minute”, Katsuwaka of the Dawn Lagoon (2019, pictured) nudged past its high estimate, selling for a total of $25,000. It would seem that the dystopian future heralded last year by the machines “is still a long way off”.

But there is scope for collaboration. A piece of “mixed reality” performance art by Marina Abramovíc is expected to sell for around £600,000 with Christie’s next year. The 19-minute work, called The Life (2019), was unveiled in February at the Serpentine Galleries in London. It involves the viewer donning a headset to watch the artist pacing around in a red dress, with the outside world still visible. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones called it “a pointless perversion that hurts your eyes”. But will the art market agree?


Auctions

Friends thingGoing…

Friends fans, could this be any more exciting?” Around 100 items and props from the hugely successful 1990s sitcom are heading to auction online with the Prop Store from Tuesday, says Rebecca Lewis in The Sun. The proceeds will go to The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organisation for LGBTQ+ young people. Among the items included in the sale is the turkey adorned with a Fez and sunglasses that Monica, played by Courtney Cox, puts on her head. The iconic orange sofa from the Central Perk coffee house is valued at up to $8,000.

Gone…

Sooty, Sweep and Soo, the puppets from the children’s television show Sooty, have sold for £5,000 at Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire to a private collection in Yorkshire. The set had been a gift from the show’s creator, Harry Corbett, in the 1970s. It was “very rare that Harry would give away a set”, Richard Cadell, the show’s current presenter, tells BBC News. Many of the original sets were destroyed by Corbett, making the puppets even rarer. “He threw the first five or six Sooties in the bin,” says Cadell. Last year, a Sooty puppet from the 1950s fetched £14,500.