The Limit Up Market

After New York's auction cycle, a lot of commentators are wondering if the market has reached its limit

There’s was a lot of talk last week of the art market having reached its limit.

Sotheby’s in-house art advisor, Allan Schwartzman, complained after the sales that “it seems like the passion has piddled away.” The New York Times’s art market reporter likened reporting on the sales to the drudgery of house work. To him, the sales are “as predictable as a washing machine” where “the cycle remains the same.”

Looking for fresh fields to plow, the Financial Times’s Melanie Gerlis turned toward other sales and found too many falling short of low estimates. “There were high points,” she wrote of the workman-like day sales, “but many of these auctions came in below expectations, suggesting that the art market—much like the US stock market—has found its limit.”

Even the ever voluble Kenny Schachter is beginning to question the art market’s ability to provide continuing entertainment. “Snowballing guarantees have had a dulling effect on bidding,” Schachter writes, “but serve to anchor the market—contributing to stability, if not confidence.”

Schachter ascribes that unease to the fact these guarantees are “rarely motivated by any impulse other than to generate buy-sell activity.” He’s right. The post-financial crisis guarantee system, which is fundamentally different structure from the initial boom years guarantee system, was founded during a market slump to generate confidence-building sales. Nearly a decade later, sales have exceeded anyone’s 2009 hopes. After sales peaked in 2014 and 2015, third-party guarantees began to wane slightly sparking hopes the third-party guarantee system might fade as the market reached new highs. Now that the market is pushing the limits of the post-financial-crisis peaks, the market can’t seem to shake the guarantee system which remains a necessary tool to promote “buy-sell activity.”

It seems as though the auction houses have undercut themselves by raising expectations too high, on one hand, with irreproducible spectacles like last year’s Salvator Mundi sale and reduced them too low, on the other, with the all-encompassing armature of guarantees. That would seem to be the situation that created the no-reserve sale of David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures.) It was an event that can best be described with an oxymoron. It was a dramatic anti-climax.

We will publish sales data from the New York cycle, and some detailed conclusions from that data, for AMMpro subscribers this week. Until then, the most significant point emerging from the market’s boring stability seems to be flattening and broadening of market share. Despite the presence of two dominating $90m lots, the more than $2bn in sales achieved in New York was less dependent upon a few top artists and saw a broader dispersion of dollars among a greater list of names. 

Don’t take this widening too far. The New York Times has been actively insisting the art market is now being driven by African-American artists, women artists and others whose identities the Times believes are—or were—marginalized. Much has been made of the subject matter of Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).

As much as it is exciting to see a variety of under-appreciated artists gain in value, the market still rests upon a few dozen familiar names like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Christopher Wool, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter. Even after these recent sales and the promising showing of artists like Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the list of the top 50 artists by dollar volume spent remains quite familiar.

New names on the market share list tend to be familiar names to the market. Take, for example, Jacob Lawrence who joined the list on the sale of a single $6m lot that set a new record for the artist. Even removing the massive spikes of $90m spent on a Hockney—which put the artist at the top of the market share table—there was still room for Yorkshire-bred painter to make the top ten list with his thirty-odd million in other sales. 

The top 25 Contemporary artists sold more than $10m each in art during the New York sales, a tough figure to reach for all but the most recognized and market-seasoned artists. Only 5 of the top 50 artists on the list are women. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jacob Lawrence are the only two African-American names. Kerry James Marshall might have had a shot at making this list had the consignment from Chicago not been withdrawn. 

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Cecily Brown had strong sales this season—all were among the top 50 artists—even if expectations ran higher than what was achieved. Rather than seeing these sales as disappointments, one might reserve the right to see it as an opportunity for future growth. 

Progress in the art market is slower that we often imagine. Though it now seems the market cycles of price growth for artists like Rudolf Stingel, Mike Kelley, George Condo, Joan Mitchell and KAWS are faster than ever, price appreciation takes time and often happens in staccato fashion.

The Times may be a little ahead of itself in declaring a whole new art market but the paper isn’t wrong about the mechanisms for reevaluating the distribution value of an artist’s work. It is important for the market to see the ceiling raised on what an artist’s work can achieve, it is equally important to have comparables. Distributive value is often gauged in terms of “if ‘x’ is worth that much, then ‘y’ must be worth …” So having a broader range of valued artists is both cause and effect of an expanding art market. It is also a necessary component for pricing the private secondary market which relies upon public prices to offer cues toward negotiations or a matrix of reference points for comparisons. Conscious of providing this service or not, the auction houses’ guarantees are both a moderating force in the market and provide a broadly beneficial reference point for sales. 

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