New York Fall 2022 Art Market Recap

November 18, 2022

With the New York Sales coming to a close, we would like to reflect on some key findings from the past two weeks, the state of art market currently, and auction records broken. 

The 2022 Fall season was anticipated to be one of the biggest in art market history. This, by some accounts, was entirely true with the monumental Paul Allen Collection.

Still, there was some skepticism regarding the market’s integrity and how it could stand against the looming state of the political and economic stressors, as well as the crypto conundrum that is the developing FTX bankruptcy

Christie’s: The Paul G Allen Collection

Breaking it down sale by sale, let’s begin with the largest and the one on everyone’s mind, the Paul G Allen Collection

The market seems to operate on a different wavelength than other sectors, and this collection left little room for doubt on that notion. This single collection, which broke records as the most valuable single sale in art market history — fetching over $1.6 billion — was a great way to test the rectitude of the art market. 

Christie’s did an exceptional job at being able to mount a sale of exceptional quality, with a 100% sell-through rate and a substantial proportion of the lots realizing far above the back estimates. It wasn’t a question of whether a lot would sell, but for how much. 

Paul Allen’s collection was stacked with some of the greatest artists in history so there was little doubt on the final pricing and international interest around the sale. However, he didn’t collect emerging artists whose identity plays a vital role in their art.

So while the sale reflects that the market is very much alive and buyers are hungry when presented with the right demand, there is little said for the contemporary sector of the art market. 

Despite that, it was a great way to open the sales and definitely attracted all attention to art and New York. 

Sotheby’s: The David Solinger Collection 

Following the momentous sale executed by Christie’s, Sotheby’s launched their first of the New York Marquee week with a Modern Art double-header, beginning with the collection of late entertainment lawyer and Whitney Museum director David M Solinger. 

After the sale concluded, it seemed the theory still bode true that the art market is a singular force in the broader economy. The Solinger collection, with a high presale estimate of $117.9 million, netted $137.9 million with 60% of lots reaching above their back estimates. 

The sale itself was a risk, considering the lack of irrevocable bids and no stated guarantees on any of the lots. This risk turned out to be well played, with the Solinger sale showcasing its strength as another white glove sale — meaning all lots were sold. 

This could be partly due to relying on the narrative of David M Solinger. He was a man that understood the market and had deep-rooted relationships with the artists that he collected, although they may be more obscure to the contemporary market. The Modern sale produced some signature lots, including Willem de Kooning’s Collage (1950) selling for $33.6 million, almost double the estimated $18 million. Another strong contender was a small patina sculpture by the surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti, which sold for $30 million. 

Sotheby’s: The Modern Evening Sale 

Sotheby’s second portion of their double-header auction evening was their 20th-century Modern sale. This Modernist sale had 21 lots with an irrevocable bid in place prior to the sale, and 25 had guarantees, so it was going to be a lucrative evening. 

The Modern boasted several artist records, including Elaine de Kooning’s Charge selling for $1.1 million. Piet Mondrian set a new auction record with his Composition II (1930), a quintessential example of the artist’s De Stijl principle abstraction, selling for a staggering $51 million. 

Bidding itself was considered very strong, partly due to the provenance of some of the works for sale. Several of the lots included in the sale came from the collection of William S Paley, former director of the Museum of Modern Art. 

The other influence that came to light is the limited supply in the Modern market. Most of the artists are deceased, and their work doesn’t trade as frequently as post-war and contemporary artists. 

Dwindling supply begets fewer collectors, which reduces demand and competition. Bonnard prices over the last week demonstrate that. Sales of work by Paul Klee also show the effect as well. Ten Klees were offered in six days, and they all sold, but not without work.

Phillip’s: The 20th Century & Contemporary Evening Sale

Fall 2022 proved to be a dynamic season for Phillip’s, considering their coveted 20th & Contemporary Sale earned the title as their third highest-selling auction — the third consecutive in three years. 

Phillip’s had seen exponential growth since the pandemic in both qualities of sales and global attention. Their success seems to be a mixture of positioning themselves as a viable alternative for major lots sold with third-party guarantees and a haven for artworks that would get overshadowed by the big collections now driving the market.

The top lot of the evening was a late Twombly painting, which used to be held in Pinault’s collection. The 2005 work sold for $36 million and bore a similar resemblance to another Twombly from the coveted Macklowe collection from Fall 2021

Solid sales for two Willem de Kooning works at Phillip’s came on the heels of Sotheby’s strong showings. One was an untitled work from 1977 that realized $4.8 million and the second was an earlier 1947 work, Event in a Barn, which went for $3 million.

The total net sale was $139 million, and two lots were withdrawn, accounting for a 98% sell-through rate.  

Sotheby’s: The Now Sale 

The Sotheby’s Now Sale is meant to serve as a marketplace for emerging artists and what the market deems as the highest quality Contemporary Art has to offer. 

This bode true with an excellent turnout and another white glove sale totaling $137 million. 

The strength of The Now sale was a bright point in Contemporary Art sales. Sotheby’s was determined to communicate it as a critical fixture in the strength of the Contemporary Art market, especially among the artists that fall under the Red-Chip umbrella. 

This sale specifically saw a lot of traction from Asian bidders. According to Sotheby’s, Asian buyers were active on almost half (45%) of the 22 lots and took home multiple signature works, including Anna Weyant, Nicolas Party, and Salman Toor. 

In recent years the market has put much more attention on the east, with the introduction of Frieze and Basel outposts during the summers and major auction houses opening sales rooms in Hong Kong and Shanghai to accommodate the buyer pool.

Despite the effects of the pandemic on Asian economies, bidders have still shown their teeth at market and are responsible for a considerable portion of Contemporary sales over the past year. How long this will continue is still left to be determined. 

Sotheby’s: The Contemporary Evening Sale 

It would be tempting to view Sotheby’s results as being split between the higher-priced Contemporary market with tepid bidding for the Warhols, De Koonings, Bacons, and Basquiats and dynamic bidding for the so-called “ultra-contemporary” artists offered in the Now sale. After all, nearly half of the lots in the Now sold above estimate with strong competition from international bidders, but the Contemporary sale only saw a fifth of this interest.

A better distinction might be that there are markets where buyers know what a good price should be and markets that are in need of price discovery. 

The conventional wisdom about the economy is that a recession is approaching. Inflation seems to be abating but remains very high. Art, especially works from well-established figures, fairs well during times of economic uncertainty, and the increasing interest and market drivers from The Now could show that this is slowly expanding to the ultra-contemporary sector as well. 

With all this said, the difference in bidding could also be attributed to the function of the estimates. Though the de Koonings sold at low estimate, they also sold in line with previous works. A Boetti sold for a record price, although not reaching the estimate.

What is important to remember in the grand scheme of auctions is that estimates are marketing tools to drive bidding and pricing up. Collectors are buying quality, but sellers already know the price that should be paid. 

The sale brought in a total net of $253 million, still above the aggregate estimate of $239 million with a 95% sell-through rate. 

Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Evening 

One of the season’s final events is the doubleheader sale from Christie’s. The combined total of both sales is a whopping $422 million, with $307 million coming from the 21st-century sale and an additional $114 million from the 20th-century. 

Christie’s was the final push for the two weeks, and has crossed $3 billion at the time of print with $66 million to spare and two-day sales still to come.

As the total dollar volume rises, the time frame for the sales has compressed. Once a two-week cycle, the auctions now take place as a near-continuous trading event, with one house’s Day sale bleeding into another’s Evening sale. 

Auctions have become an endpoint, not an event. Sales are often a hybrid private-public process. At the top end of the price spectrum, works are often procured with a buyer in place, but what bankers call a “go-shop provision” where the price is tested against other potential offers. The rest benefit from an all-out effort to secure a bidder. In the second half of the 20th Century sale, a copper Donald Judd bullnose from Roger Sant’s collection had bids to $2.6 million, just above the low estimate.

Five lots were withdrawn from the sales, and seven lots were bought in. Those numbers would be remarkable for the 92% sell-through rate in a different era. Today, that number is a vestige of a few lots that slipped through the cracks. 

The Allen collection had five over $100 million, 12 above the highest-priced lot in both of Christie’s Evening sales and 19 eight-figure lots to a dozen in the Evening sales.

Nearly a billion dollars was spent at Christie’s during the Allen sale at prices above the top price of these various owner sales. By the time the Day sales are done and counted, the tally should be an additional $500 million from the various owner sales. That’s a huge amount of art for the market to absorb at a time when economic expectations are anything but positive. 

Going into the week, the assumption was that young artists selling for seven figures would be the most vulnerable market sector. It didn’t play out that way. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Salman Toor, Rashid Johnson, Anna Weyant and Shara Hughes all saw aggressive bidding in the 21st Century sale. 

Works by Charles Ray, despite the major retrospective at the Met this year, Martin Kippenberger, Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool and Toyin Ojih Odutola were all sold at prices below the estimates. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Grotjahn each had two works sell at compromise prices. These are all established artists whose work could be considered a safe haven in an art market storm. But that’s where we’re seeing the softening, not necessarily among the emerging artists. 

The State of The Market 

It’s surprisingly easy to forget that this week’s auctions had the unenviable task of trying to woo buyers only a few days after Christie’s sold $1.6 billion worth of Paul Allen’s art. Pretending that a historical event would have no ripple effects on the rest of the auction cycle would be naive at best.

However, despite the trailing memory of elections and questionable economic outcomes on the horizon, the two-week period in itself bode far better than other alternative assets. 

This same week bitcoin dropped to unwavering prices and the integrity of cryptocurrencies has been the topic of discussion since FTX declared bankruptcy and is now the center of a developing fraud case. 

With fears of the financial crisis and  traditional assets proving to be more risk than reward, one can see why fine art has been able to say stable. 

Prizing itself as being one of the oldest asset classes and the marketplace rooted in a strong middle class and cultural integrity, as well as being a prized storage of wealth for the elite and wealthy, the art market could be seen as a safe haven during harsh economic climates.

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