With over USD 2.7 billion worth of artworks sold in less than two weeks in NYC in May 2015, this auction season is the highest ever recorded in all auction history, spanning Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art. The figures are stunning; but even more remarkably, the art market is showing no sign of weakness despite an impressive growth for the past few years, driven by increased globalization, and the entrance of new buyers more particularly from Asia.

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This Auction Season in Key Figures

In terms of periods, Post-War and Contemporary Art is clearly taking a strong lead with revenues just short of USD 1.6 billion, the highest total ever achieved within an auction season, however only a slight increase as compared to past seasons, USD 1.5 billion in November 2014. Impressionist and Modern art, with over USD 1.2 billion, is reaching is highest level yet as well, with an impressive growth (from USD 700 million in November 2014) driven by numerous records at the highest level.

Christie’s emerged as a clear winner for this auction season with a whopping USD 1.7 billion achieved, reaching a new and unprecedented benchmark in auction history during a single week.

Christie’s indeed created auction history, combining for the first time both categories in a single week, with a leading curated sale entitled Looking forward to the past on Monday night presenting works from both categories. This “super-charged” sale achieved over USD 700 million, and broke numerous records:

  • 35 lots, all but one sold, all above estimates
  • 48 minutes for a total revenue of over USD 700 million
  • New world auction record for any work of art, with Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger, sold for USD 180 million including 40 bids above USD 100 million
  • New world auction record for any sculpture, with Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt, sold for USD 141 million

The new record set by the Picasso is a dramatic USD 37 million increase from the previous record of USD 142 million achieved for Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud in November 2013, also at Christie's. 

To give some perspective, in the early 2000’s, a typical two-week spring or fall New York auction season, including both the Impressionist and Modern Art as well as Post-War and Contemporary Art categories, would typically reach USD 300 million to USD 500 million. Now Christie's and Sotheby's alone can generate that much and more in a single evening sale in NYC… The next benchmark will be USD 1 billion achieved in a single sale…

What is the reality hidden behind those figures?

First, those record figures are driven by the high-end market, with a record 288 lots sold over USD 1 million, no less than 29 lots over USD 20 million. With over USD 800 million in total value, the top ten artworks represent more than 30% of the total amount sold confirming the importance of “trophy artworks” for which there is no limitation in value anymore. Still most of the sales, including the day sales, range between USD 100-500K.

It also confirms a strong domination of the Impressionist and Modern art segment at the highest level, generating 70% in value of the top 10 lots.

Art Figures

Second, the art market is more global than ever with registered bidders from 48 countries, a record at auction, with a clear bias towards Asia and the Middle-East. Even though buyers at auction usually stay anonymous, this year, some Middle East and Asian buyers revealed their identities. The record winning Picasso is now the property of Qatar’s Al Thani family.  Vincent van Gogh’s L’Alleee des Alyscamps sold for USD 63 million to a Chinese collector. Picasso’s Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil sold for USD 30 million to Chinese media mogul Wang Zhongjun, among others. It seems clear through the observed bidding activity from the phones during auctions that Asia is leading the pack, Sotheby’s has released that Asia contributed more than 30% of the evening auctions total. However, Western collectors are still very active, Hedge fund mogul Steve Cohen was revealed as the buyer of the record-breaking Giacometti's L’homme au doigt, sold for USD 141 million. This past fall, he also purchased Giacometti’s Chariot for just over USD 100 million… 

Third, the sell-through rates remain very solid, on average 15% for the evening sales. In total, out of 2,101 lots on offer, 1,645 sold for a total sell-through rate of over 78%, which is within industry average. Whereas the number of lots appears more or less stable as compared to recent years, average prices are increasing, showing the market is driven by a higher global demand. Day sales are also demonstrating increased bidding competition.

Fourth, one can observe the gradual dominance of Christie’s in the global art market that was up to two years ago a more balanced battle with Sotheby’s. We think that could be attributed to their now solidly divergent strategies around guarantees, a strategy aimed at securing top-level consignments. Sotheby’s reportedly guaranteed only one quarter of the number of lots (16) that Christie’s guaranteed (64). Some have suggested that the aggressive nature of these guarantees could artificially increase sale totals in order to convince collectors that are unmotivated to sell… 

Certainly not all of them, interestingly, the Giacometti breaking-record sculpture was one of the few star lots that did not have any auction guarantee; Christie’s confirmed they had extended a guarantee that was declined by the seller, whom indicated that he would take it back if it failed to find a buyer at the auction…

Is The Art Market over-heating?

The art market has demonstrated a sustained growth for the past 5 years, with auction houses breaking records year after year, and constantly reaching new benchmarks. Some have already warned of potential over-heating of the art market driven by irrationality and the availability of huge liquidity in the financial markets in the need to be invested.

To that extent, the new CEO of Sotheby’s, in a recent interview, described his target market by referencing a report highlighting there were over 170,000 people around the world with a net wealth over USD 30 million, with a total wealth estimated at USD 21 trillion, and with a predicted growth of 34% within the next 10 years…This certainly indicates the art market is not over-heating anytime soon…

In fact, we believe the art market will continue to grow strongly over the course of next years, driven by remarkable macro-economic factors

  • Increase in number and in wealth among High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI’s)
  • Increased interest of HNWI’s for art as an investment asset in terms of wealth protection and diversification
  • Increased globalization, with easy access to buyers from all around the world, and most of those buyers willing to acquire the same artists and artworks
  • Demonstrated returns and downside protection over the medium-term for the most important artists
  • Sustained imbalance between the offer of good quality artworks from dead artists and an increased global demand
  • Increased global urbanization and museum construction all over the world

 

To illustrate the importance of the latter, Miami is a great example of how impactful Art can be to a vibrant community. It is estimated that ART BASEL MIAMI Beach injects over USD 500 million yearly to the local economy. The hospitality business is thriving; Miami has one of the highest occupancy rates in the world, over 80%, with average rates doubling over the past 10 years. It is clear that it has also positively impacted the multi-billion real estate business in the area, have attracted the best architects in the world, and have contributed to revive entire neighborhoods…

The increased activity at auction is also mirrored by the frenzy demonstrated in the main art fairs all over the world, where seasoned collectors are not shy to purchase anymore at all levels, with increased frequentation and in the number of transactions.

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Maybe because the art market is the perfect way to combine the pleasure of owning meaningful artworks, with the potential of investing wisely one’s wealth, we predict a durable and sustained growth of the art market for the coming years, we predict more benchmarks will be broken, we predict more museums will be built and more art will be shared around in vibrant communities globally.

SEBASTIEN LABOUREAU