A quiet period on the auction market


During the first quarter of 2024, the mood in auction rooms around the world remained distinctly flat and major works were rare. Nevertheless, the results obtained have been solid enough to stop the market from going into panic mode and, as we approach the major sales in May, the market appears to be relatively buoyant.

After a difficult year 2023 for art market professionals, marked by macroeconomic uncertainties in Europe and the United States, the main Western art marketplaces posted declines in their annual art auction turnovers. The same mood has continued during the first months of 2024, with auction results clearly less dynamic what we usually see. Take for example, the sessions dedicated to Old Masters in New York in January: in 2023, a Rubens painting reached nearly $27 million, while in 2022, a Christ by Botticelli sold for $45 million and in 2021, a portrait of a young man by the same Botticelli fetched over $92 million! This year, the best result in the same January sales is just $6 million, for a bronze sculpture “Sleeping Nymph” by the Italian sculptor GIAMBOLOGNA (c.1529-1608), offered by Christie’s in New York.

But, although that $6 million results doesn’t rival the best results of previous years, it nevertheless remains impressive. Sleeping nymph sold for five million dollars above the mid-way estimate, highlighting a sustained demand for rare works. The six million for this small bronze (around thirty centimeters) testify to the determination of buyers to seize a unique opportunity, especially since such opportunities were less frequent on the auction market during the first quarter of 2024 than in the past.

Two months after the sale of Sleeping nymph, London’s Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art sales presented even more prestigious works that added fuel to the general market dynamic. A painting by Francis BACON sold for $25 million, while another by David HOCKNEY reached $24 million and Pablo PICASSO’s Homme à la pipe (1968) sold for more than $17 million. All of these works exceeded their high estimates, with the Picasso adding $2 million to its high estimate.

Above all, René MAGRITTE’s enigmatic painting, L’Ami intime, generated the best result of the quarter when it fetched $43 million, the artist’s second best-ever auction result behind the $79.3 million hammered for his L’Empire des lumières in 2022. The sale of L’Ami intime for $43 million illustrated the determination of major collectors when it comes to high-value works, but the market for prestigious works has shown signs of impoverishment. Auction houses are clearly still struggling to persuade owners of major works to offer them at auction. The contraction in high-end supply, already observed in 2023 – leading to a notable drop in global turnover of -14% last year – is continuing this year: only five works fetched sold for more than $10 million in Q1 2024, compared to twelve in Q1 2023.

Despite these signs of stagnation for prestige works, market dynamics remain strong in other segments. It is worth remembering that 2023 was the most active year in the history of the global art market in terms of auction transactions, with more than 760,000 successful bids. The 155,000 works sold around the world in the first quarter of 2024 confirm the continued mobilization of buyers. One of the main reasons for this enthusiasm is the increasing digitalization of auctions. Indeed, online sales, which make it possible to mobilize a large number of bidders over a longer period than auction room sales, are clearly gaining in popularity. This trend was accentuated by the Covid-19 crisis and it helped to streamline transactions with an even younger clientele. At Phillips for example, the world’s third largest auction house by art auction turnover, almost half of the 2023 clients were first-time buyers and a third of the buyers were from generations Y and Z.

Increased competition for female artists

A proactive acquisition policy by Western museums, coupled with growing demand from private collectors has made the market for works by women artists particularly dynamic. The number of transactions involving works by women artists has doubled in five years and tripled in ten years. Regardless of the style or period in question, prices for works by famous female artists are increasing, driven by higher competition.

In January, Sotheby’s sold an Autoportrait en costume de voyage by the French portraitist Elisabeth VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755 -1842) for three times its high estimate at $3 million. This pastel work not only gave the artist a new record in the “drawing” category, but it also places her at a higher price level than her male counterpart, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. This success reflects the current enthusiasm for the rare female painters in art history. Élisabeth Louise Vigée, official painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette, is one of the emblematic figures of the 18th century, alongside the other female artists that the National Gallery of Art in Washington is currently striving to acquire to enrich its collections. Indeed, acutely aware of the under-representation of female artists in their collections, Western museums have recently intensified acquisitions of their works.

The March sales confirmed this ongoing revaluation of female artists. Sotheby’s London Modern and Contemporary Art Sessions reported that 60% of lots created by women exceeded their high estimates. For example, Portrait of Geneviève (1944) by Françoise GILOT – not only famous for having been the companion of Pablo Picasso, but also for her talents as a writer and painter – attracted bidding up to $922,000, almost four times its high estimate. Other female artists have exceeded expectations, including Etel Adnan, Rebecca Warren, Agnes Martin and Cecily Brown among the most established Contemporaries. And nor have young artists been left out; a work by the young (in her forties) British artist, Jadé FADOJUTIMI, set a new auction record in March when it fetched $1.98 million after six long minutes of bidding. As cultural institutions try to avoid repeating the ‘omissions’ of the past, several have already included works by Fadojutimi in their permanent collections. She is notably the youngest artist to have joined the permanent collection of the Tate Modern in London.

So, the major trends of the previous year – scarcity of masterpieces, maximum volume of transactions and strong enthusiasm for female artists – have all been confirmed in the first quarter of this year. In the months to come, market developments will be largely influenced by the possibility of putting exceptional collections on sale, like those of Paul Allen and Thomas and Doris Ammann, which alone generated two billion dollars during their dispersals in 2022. In short, the market needs to see some major masterpieces on the auction podium to rekindle its somewhat depressed spirits so far in 2024.

Figures to remember in Q1 2024:

1.3 billion > The global auction turnover from Fine Art auctions in Q1 2024, down 36% compared with Q1 2023.

162,000 > The number of lots sold during Q1 2024, a decrease of only 1% versus the number of transactions recorded a year earlier.

-79% > The contraction in France’s Fine Art auction turnover: $17 million in Q1 2024 versus $82 million in Q1 2023.

142 > The number of results above the 1 million (in USD, incl. fees) threshold counted by Artprice during Q1 2024 worldwide, compared with 261 in Q1 2023.

$6 million > The record price in January 2024 for a work of art at auction: Sleeping nymph by the Italian sculptor Giambologna (c.1529-1608) was sold by Christie’s in New York for approximately six times its estimate.

x 340 > The price multiplication generated by the sale of René Magritte’s L’Ami intime (1958) after 43 years: in 1980 it sold for £99,000 at Sotheby’s whereas on 7 March 2024, it fetched £33.7 million ($43 million) at Christie’s, the best art auction result of the first quarter.

7th > Yayoi Kusama’s position in Artprice’s provisional global ranking of artists by their annual art auction turnover. With a total of $16.7 million hammered in the first three months of 2024, she is the 2nd most successful living artist in the world after David Hockney.

$1,985,200 > The new auction record for Jadé Fadojutimi (b. 1993) after Christie’s in London sold her The Woven Warped Garden of Ponder (2021) on 7 March 2024 at more than three times its estimates.