Art Market Forecast: A Hazy Summer
LONDON — The art world traditionally descends on Europe in June, first for Art Basel, widely regarded as the essential fair for collectors, then on to London for the summer auctions.
But the mood this year is unsettled. There has been a significant contraction in the auction market for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art. And Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’s high-end auctions in London all take place within a week of Britain’s referendum on membership in the European Union.
Here is a look at some of the events that are driving the art market this summer.
The Basel Barometer
For many serious collectors, particularly in a year without a Biennale in Venice, Art Basel and its various satellite fairs and events remain the main draw. The economics of art fairs are hard to quantify — Art Basel publishes attendance figures, but not sales results — but this year’s edition, featuring 286 galleries from 33 countries, which previews on Tuesday, should give some sense of how dealers are being affected by the changed mood in the market. Year-on-year totals at last month’s Impressionist and contemporary sales in New York were down by as much as 64 percent.
“The previews I’ve received from galleries have been different this year,” said Heather Flow, an art adviser in New York. “They’re bringing more historical material and very little by young artists.”
But Ms. Flow and other art advisers said they saw little evidence that galleries were lowering prices for new works.
“There’s a growing rift between price and value,” she said. “In some cases, gallery prices are higher than the levels at which similar works are being flipped,” meaning resales at auction.
But a select group of living artists still remain hot. The New York dealer Jack Shainman, exhibiting in the main Art Basel area for the first time, will be showing a small 2016 painting by Kerry James Marshall of a male figure, “Untitled (Looking Man)” priced at $350,000. That number might seem imposing, but a larger 1992 work by Mr. Marshall — currently the subject of a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago — sold for $2.2 million last month at Christie’s.Continue reading the main story
Another trend is an emphasis on artists’ estates. The New York dealer James Cohan, one of 32 galleries in the Feature section, devoted to curated projects, is presenting a solo booth of 1960s works from the estate of the American conceptual artist Robert Smithson. These range in price from $45,000 for drawings to $750,000 for the 1965 mirror sculpture, “Four-Sided Vortex.”
“Today’s art world is confused about the canon,” Mr. Cohan said, explaining the attraction of artists’ estates. “An estate allows a collector to look at an artist’s reputation and sees how it stacks up in the face of art history. It’s not speculative, it’s fresh to the market and leads to artists being reassessed.”
“The ups and downs of the market are event-driven by fairs,” said Mr. Cohan. “But the environment is different now. Works need to be exceptional to gain the interest of the collector.”
Leaner London Auctions
The fear of Britain voting to leave the European Union on June 23 and what that might do to the value of the British pound has rattled some potential sellers at London’s summer auctions. Many financial analysts view departure from the Union as a bad move for the British economy that could potentially trigger a further decline in the pound, reducing the value of British goods against other currencies.
“It was a factor, but it wasn’t the whole story,” said Jay Vincze, the head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s in London, whose June 22 evening sale contains 36 lots with a total low estimate of 38.3 million pounds, about $56 million. The equivalent event last June raised £71.5 million from 50 works.
“Potential currency fluctuation was a worry for overseas consignors,” he said. “Other people took a view that it just wasn’t a good time to sell in the middle of this year.”
The Christie’s sale does contain a group of seven works by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky from a Swiss private collection, carrying a total minimum estimate of £9 million.
But such was the shortage of big-name lots that Christie’s has included the 1991 canvas “Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste” by Bernard Buffet — an artist some dismiss as kitsch — valued at £700,000 to £1.2 million.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale on June 21 is even smaller, with just 28 lots. Nonetheless, the sale does include Picasso’s “Femme Assise,” a museum quality 1909 early Cubist head-and-shoulders study of his lover Fernande Olivier, which had been bought by its anonymous seller in 1973.
A Picasso Cubist painting of this importance hasn’t appeared on the auction market for almost 20 years. With an estimate of £30 million, and no guaranteed minimum price, both Sotheby’s and the seller are clearly confident it will achieve a trophy price, regardless of wider uncertainties.
The seller of Modigliani’s languid 1919 three-quarter length portrait “Jeanne Hebuterne (au foulard),” back on the market after being bought at auction in 1986, was rather less confident of success, and accepted a minimum price from Sotheby’s of at least £28 million.
The scope of London’s contemporary art auctions, which take place the week after the European Union vote, has contracted even more sharply. Sotheby’s evening sale on June 28 carries a low estimate of £35.5 million, compared with the £130.4 million the equivalent sale achieved last year. Christie’s June 29 offering has a low estimate of £40.3 million, less than half its June 2015 total of £95.7 million .
Christie’s has, however, diverted some major contemporary works, such as Francis Bacon’s 1968 “Version No. 2 of Lying Figure With Hypodermic Syringe,” valued at £20 million, into a sale on June 30, “Defining British Art,” to celebrate the auction house’s 250th anniversary.
By then, depending on what effect the referendum result has on the pound, international buyers could view British art like the Bacon as the best or the worst value in Europe.
Luxury on the Block
With art not quite the force it was in the market, luxury goods are becoming a growth area for international auction houses.
On May 30 in Hong Kong, Christie’s sold an Hermès Birkin Himalayan crocodile handbag for an auction high of $300,000.
On June 29, Sotheby’s London is looking to raise the bar for a diamond at auction when it offers the 1,109-carat uncut “Lesedi la Rona” in a stand-alone sale. Found in Botswana in 2015 by the Lucara Diamond Corp., it is the largest rough diamond to have been discovered for more than a century and is estimated to sell for more than $70 million. The current auction high is the $57.5 million achieved in May for the 14.62-carat “Oppenheimer Blue” diamond at Christie’s in Geneva.
“Lucara and Sotheby’s have been very clever in this sale by offering the stone rough to the public,” said Guy Burton, a director at the London jewelers Hancocks, who said that large uncut diamonds have hitherto been privately auctioned to the trade.
“Now there is the option to offer the stone as the largest diamond on earth,” Mr. Burton said. “This could drive competition between experienced cutters and traders against collectors.”