(Bloomberg) — The good news first: People are still buying art.
The slightly less good news to emerge from this week’s mega New York auctions: Fewer people seem to want that art than in years past.
“I think bidding has been very spotty,” says the art adviser Jacob King, speaking after Sotheby’s back-to-back contemporary evening sales on Nov. 16. “A lot of the works have sold on one bid, or to the guarantor,” meaning the person who agreed, in advance of the sale, to buy an artwork for a minimum amount.
Thin interest or not, the art has sold, and that’s been enough to propel the November New York sales—typically, some of the biggest of the global auction market—to record amounts. This week, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s have sold more than $1.4 billion worth of art, which, combined with last week’s auctions of the collection owned by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, brings the running total to just over $3 billion. The few remaining auctions on Friday and over the weekend will nudge it even higher.
These are undeniably massive numbers, but they don’t appear to reflect any sort of bump in enthusiasm from last week’s Allen sale, which auction houses were hoping would inject confidence into the market. Instead, it would seem that broader macroeconomic concerns, including sustained fears of a global recession, have led some collectors to sit on the sidelines.
On Tuesday night, the art adviser Jude Hess bid on the star lot at Phillips’s evening sale, a 16-foot-wide Cy Twombly estimated to sell at $35 million to $45 million. She was competing against what appeared to be a single other collector—someone bidding by phone—and ultimately lost out to them, with the work selling, with auction house fees, for $41.6 million.
“It’s a beautiful, monumental work, great quality, and rare to come on the market,” says Hess. “But in better economic conditions there could have been three or four bidders on it.”
The lower end, which in the context of evening sales means works priced at $500,000 to $2 million (peanuts!), appeared to have lost quite a bit of froth as well. Even though a few paintings had more than a dozen bidders, King, who noted that at the time he had yet to see Sotheby’s day sales on Nov. 17 or Christie’s double-header that night, says his initial impression is that estimates were generally too high, and enthusiasm was markedly diminished. “Bidding for the young material is starting to wane dramatically,” he says. “The mood in the Now sale tonight was the opposite of what it was last May, when there was frenetic bidding for everything.”
Part of that could be exhaustion from the sheer number of lots. On Thursday night, Christie’s held back-to-back 20th and 21st century evening sales where about 100 artworks hit the block in the course of a roughly four-hour marathon sale. “There’s way too many lots that came up in one evening,” said the adviser Heather Flow, as she left the sales room after the auction. “People are being really careful with what they want, and there’s not a buying spree where people go for anything and everything.”
Instead, she continues, it’s best to think of this week’s sales as the market dragging consignors’ lofty expectations back to Earth. “Three million dollars is being asked, but maybe the real price is $2.2 million,” she says. “As one dealer said to me, everyone is both desperate and greedy.”
You can find a list of the top sales this November below. These 10 works alone, nine of which come from Paul Allen’s collection, totaled $958 million. The only previous season that gets close to that number is the November 2017 sales, which included a $450 million Leonardo.
10. $52 million for Edouard Manet’s Le Grand Canal à Venise from 1874
9. $55 million for Jasper Johns’s Small False Start, from 1960
8. $65 million for Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Soleil Voilé from 1899-1903
7. $85 million for Andy Warhol’s White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times] from 1963
6. $86 million for Lucian Freud’s Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) from 1981-83
5. $105 million for Gustav Klimt’s Birch Forest from 1903
4. $106 million for Paul Gauguin’s Maternité II from 1899
3. $117 million for Vincent van Gogh’s Verger Avec Cyprès from 1888
2. $138 million for Paul Cezanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire from 1888-90
1. $149 million for Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) from 1888