The Price of a Dollar and the Return of the Collector’s Market

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balancethe ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

Before the Blade helicopters disembark Friday for a Memorial Day of rosé and white linen Out East, this week provides time for reflection now that the marquee New York auction sales are over. These few weeks before Art Basel—when the art world decamps for Switzerland for what is widely considered the world’s most important fair for modern and contemporary art—are typically a time for considering how the market is doing. And, while top collectors (and dealers) head to the evening sales to make their big purchases, the day sales are a far better instrument for measuring the market’s current temperature and spotting upcoming squalls.

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At Christie’s, the postwar and contemporary day sales had 296 lots—almost 30 more than this past November’s sales—with an aggregate estimated total between $66.5 million and $99.8 million. The final hammer price for the collected works was $59.7 million, just below estimate. With premiums, that climbs to $77.7 million, a figure comfortably in the estimated range. Add in a healthy sell-through rate of 84 percent, a few ticks lower if including the withdrawn lots, and the picture is that of a functional market. Sotheby’s contemporary day sale proved even more successful: the aggregate total for its 345 lots (compared to 338 last fall) was just over $78 million with fees, against a $63.8 million–$90.8 million estimate. Sell-through rates there reached 83 percent, again, a few ticks lower including lots withdrawn.

With their lower values, day sales may not be as sexy as evening sales, where artworks regularly sell for tens of millions, but they carry indicative trends. As we noted in January, Indigenous art is seeing a long-overdue rise in recognition, which the market is reflecting. That’s one reason to explain why, even as numerous market stars have struggled in recent seasons, Emmi Whitehorse’s Canyon Lake I  (2001) sold for nearly 10 times its $18,000 high estimate, to bring in $177,800 with fees at Phillips modern and contemporary day sale.

But this season, as a dealer told me earlier this week, wasn’t so much about setting records—though a couple were set—but rather living to fight another day. It’s been clear since the lots were announced last month that specialists at all three houses were scrounging to find the best work they could to auction and, given the number of guarantees and irrevocable bids at the sales, fighting just as hard to sell them.

“What you saw this season was a defensive posture, where the houses decided to trade the possibility of breakout bidding and competition for certainty and security,” Alex Glauber, an art adviser and president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, told ARTnews. “Sure, there isn’t a lot of appetite for risk right now, but this isn’t two or three years ago.”

There have been a lot of high-value estates coming to market in the past few years, from the $1.5 billion Paul Allen sale at Christie’s in 2022 to last year’s sale of Emily Fisher Landau’s collection at Sotheby’s. But this season’s big prize, to the extent there was one, was the modestly valued Rosa de la Cruz collection: that put pressure on the houses to source works, which drove consigners to think hard about the economic lay of the land before putting up a work. The houses accurately took the temperature of a collector class that was finally coming down to earth after riding a low-interest-rate wave into the stratosphere, and wisely responded with reasonable reserves and estimates that resonated with those collectors happy to spend if the price was right.

“The market relearned the value of a dollar,” Glauber said. “People, I think, are much more thoughtful about the value of their money and what they can do with that and what they can get.”

The takeaway from many advisers and market-watchers seems to be that, in place of the frothy post-Covid market, we now have a more cerebral collectors’ market shorn of the finance and tech bros who treat artworks more as commodities and points on a stock chart. It’s worth wondering, then, if or how this new line of thinking will affect galleries in the near future, especially for those dealers who jacked up primary prices for early and midcareer artists amid the 2021 and 2022 secondary-market bonanza.

“Galleries and artists need to understand that three or four stellar auction results don’t mean the price should automatically move up. You need to play this a little more like a chess game,” art adviser Ralph DeLuca told ARTnews. “Often you see younger artists go to bigger galleries, and prices go up because they’re used to selling at a higher price point and they have more overhead. But I don’t know if that’s the best thing for a younger artist’s career in most cases.”

The one major estate on sale this season, that of Rosa de la Cruz, did admirably, and it included real cornerstones of contemporary art history like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose 1992 workUntitled” (America #3) hammered at $11.5 million ($13.6 million with fees).

Of course, there were casualties this season too. At the last moment, Christie’s withdrew its top lot, Brice Marden’s Event(2004–07), which was estimated at $30 million to $50 million and had been set to break the artist’s $30.9 million auction record. After the sale ended with a $114.7 million total, Christie’s chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art Alex Rottersaid that decision was made by the house.

“It wasn’t Brice’s evening, and we’re not willing to jeopardize the market of an artist like that,” Rotter said in the post-sale press conference.

Some pointed to the withdrawal of the Marden as a sign that the market was still suffering from post-Covid-induced anxiety fueled by a lack of masterpieces and collectors willing to part with the cash. In short, the estimate may have just been unrealistic.

“Often, there are aspirational estimates which come from the houses trying to meet a consignor’s aspirational expectations,” one insider told me. “This season’s estimates were much more reasonable, but in this case the market pushed back.”

If the market is in a malaise, you wouldn’t have known it from the sale of Leonora Carrington’s 1945 painting Les Distractions de Dagobert, which went for $28.5 million with fees this past Wednesday at the Sotheby’s modern evening sale, a record for the artist and a wonderful price for a painting that was universally praised as brilliant.

“For every example of a weak market, there’s an example to prove the opposite,” Sara Friedlander, deputy chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, told ARTnews. “There were surprises this week across all three auction houses, and that’s the magic of the auction.”

Friedlander pointed to the sale of a 1964 Andy Warhol “Flowers” series painting—auction sales of which there have been many—that hammered at $30 million, its high estimate, with four bidders competing. With premium, the price totaled $35 million.

Christie’s deserves special mention for dealing with a “technology security issue” (that’s hacking, folks, most likely a targeted cyberattack) that may have unforeseen ramifications. No one would have begrudged a delayed sale or two on the house’s part, but they soldiered on. And rightly so. These houses are in the business of making consignments and selling art. Not every sale can be a blockbuster. It’s impossible. And comparing year-over-year to the recent past, when it was effectively free to borrow money—and the world was going through a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime crisis—seems callously dishonest.

“In the most public way possible, all three auction houses had to do some very heavy lifting to answer the question that’s been asked over and over again, ‘Is there a still market?’” art adviser Gabriela Palmieri told ARTnews a few days after the sales, when everyone had caught their breath.

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“The simple answer, against all naysayers, is yes. In many cases the houses were able to sell works that had been sitting on the market and hadn’t sold because of different expectations and prices. They found the buyers. At the end of the day I really believe that people need to look at the fact that now we’re back to establishing trends, and stop focusing on outliers.”


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