Twice a year, collectors, art aficionados and art advisors congregate in New York to witness the world’s top artworks go on the block at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. Between the three houses, billions of dollars of art is sold, often at individual record prices.
Starting off the 2015 November auction series, Christie’s sold Amedeo Modigliani’s highly publicized Nu Couché (1917-18) for USD 170.4 million to Liu Yiqian, a Chinese art collector who plans to bring the work back to Shanghai. The work was guaranteed at USD 100 million. It was the second-highest price paid for an artwork at auction and certainly set a record for the artist: the previous highest price for a Modigliani painting was USD 69 million, in 2010.
Earlier this year, Christie’s started changing the format of many of its auctions. The Modigliani was sold in a themed, curated auction, “The Artist’s Muse,” in which a number of masterpieces were exhibited and sold. Speculation abounds as to why the house is changing its format, but so far it seems to be paying off.
At Sotheby’s, the collection of the auction house’s former chairman, Alfred Taubman, was the big attraction. All of the property was guaranteed, at a reported total of USD 500 million. The sale drew in USD 377,034,000 with a sell-through rate of 89.6 percent. It brought in more than any single-owner sale in history, including the Yves St. Laurent sale in Paris in 2009, which was hugely successful.
The Phillips first “Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art,” held in the same week, brought in USD 66.9 million, including a record achieved for Le Corbusier, whose work Femme rouge et pelote verse (1932) sold for USD 4,482,100 (incl. buyer’s premium). Although sales at Phillips are more modest than sales at its rivals, it always has quality works on offer.
Sotheby’s “Contemporary Art Evening Auction” brought in USD 294,850,000 for 44 artworks, with a sell-through rate by lot of 72.5 percent. The sale’s star lot, Cy Twombly’s Untitled (New York City) (1968) sold for a record USD 70,350,000. Unlike the sales at Christie’s and Phillips, Sotheby’s had very few guaranteed lots in this sale.
In the highly competitive top end of the art market, guarantees are used by the auction houses to secure artworks for their sales. Opinions are divided on whether guarantees distort the market by affecting the outcome of the sale. Some argue that guarantees artificially create confidence in the market, but it’s important to note that even if a work is guaranteed, buyers are not forced to bid on a particular work.
Finally, Christie’s “Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale,” with a buy-in rate of 20 percent, sold 53 lots for USD 331,809,000. The sale set a record for the enormous Louise Bourgeois Spider, from a 1997 cast, which sold for USD 28,165,000, making it the most expensive sculpture by a woman artist ever sold at auction.
Overall, the November auction series went well this year, with decent sell-through rates across the board, a reassuring indication that the art market continues to thrive.
Annelien Bruins is COO and Senior Art Advisor at Tang Art Advisory in New York, East Hampton, Philadelphia, Miami, London and Hong Kong. The firm provides its private clients with advice on the buying, selling and managing of their collections of fine and decorative art. For more information, visit www.tangartadvisory.com. The content of this article is for informational purposes only. ©Annelien Bruins 2015.
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