Contemporary art loses its shine



The market for contemporary art, the most speculative segment of the art market (+108% since 2003), has not withstood the shocks of the current financial turmoil. The results of the prestigious November sales in New York organised by Sotheby’s and Christie’s on 11 and 12 November are most discouraging.Only 66% of the lots offered during the two prestigious evening sales found buyers and the total sales revenue generated amounted to just $ 204 million, well below the most pessimistic estimates of $ 429 million. Retrospectively, November 2007 increasingly looks like having been the market’s peak. At the same evening sales last year, only 9% of the lots remained unsold and the total revenue amounted to $ 399 million, i.e. 20% above the combined low estimates. As at 15 November 2008, the prices of contemporary and post-war art have contracted by 36% compared with December 2007, returned, in just a few months, to their November 2006 levels.

A self-portrait by Francis BACON, a Concetto Spaziale Festa sul Canal Grande by Lucio FONTANA, a sculpture and a painting by Roy LICHTENSTEIN, a nude by Lucian FREUD and an oil painting by Brice MARDEN are among the key lots that remained in the hands of the auctioneers. Even more worrying… 10 of the 13 works by Damien HIRST offered last week were also bought in. Not even the veritable star of the contemporary art market in September with his highly successful Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale at Sotheby’s was able to seduce buyers.

In this black November for the art market there were nevertheless some consolations at Christie’s on the evening of the 12th. Firstly there was Jean-Michel BASQUIATUntitled (Boxer) dating from 1982 which had belonged to Lars Ulrich and which fetched its low estimate of $ 12 million. An abstract painting by Gerhard RICHTER entitled Abstraktes Bild (710) fetched $ 13.2 million, a little over the $ 12m expected. However these relatively good results turned out to be just a short pause in the massacre as the following lot, a monumental painting by the same German artist entitled Ozu (2.6 x 4 metres) painted in 1987 and estimated at $ 10m … was bought in.The previous evening at Sotheby’s an Archisponge (RE 11) by Yves KLEIN fetched the highest bid of the week at $ 19m, but well below the $ 25m low estimate. The other star lot of the evening was a painting entitled Beggar’s Joys by Philip GUSTON which went under the hammer for $ 9m, significantly below the $ 15m expected. Beggar’s Joys was one of the 65 lots carrying a guaranteed price among the 138 offered (47%). Last year, at the same sales, 48% of the works were guaranteed by the two auction houses.

The week dedicated to Contemporary Art closed on 13 November at Phillips de Pury. Traditionally the works presented there are much more recent than those presented at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. With « emerging art » being a much more volatile sector, it was not surprising that only one of the six works offered above the $ 1m line found a buyer.