Reflections on the Fall Auction Season (Intro to Round Ups)

It was a jam-packed auction season—the first in two years with in-person audiences—with some standout collections and blue-chip artworks that led to a soaring $2.6 billion in generated revenue for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Due to time, I did not get a chance to cover the Phillips sales, but in the next few blog posts, I summarize some highlights from the modern and contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But here, first, an introduction of sorts, with a few over-arching points and themes to touch on:

In a sign of our ever-changing times, it’s worth noting that Sotheby’s has yet again restructured its marquee sales into different categories. You may recall in my December 2020 post, I recounted the confusing structural changes that the auction houses experimented with in the face of the pandemic, including global online “relay” auctions, throwing in some Old Masters (and T-Rexes) into the mix, and generally shaking up the time-honored categories of “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary.” And for their 2021 Spring auctions, Christie’s committed to a permanent change away from these categories to respective 20th and 21st century sales, the parameters of which are noted as “flexible.”

This fall, Sotheby’s announced they are restructuring the modern and contemporary evening auctions into 3 sales: “The Modern,” (covering late 19th to early 20th century art), “The Contemporary,” (covering postwar art to the late 20th century) and “The Now” (art of the last two decades). A Sotheby’s representative noted that, like Christie’s’ groupings, these parameters are flexible, because the sales also take into consideration stylistic—rather than strictly chronological—factors.

Sotheby’s’ and Christie’s’ creation of marquee sales just for 21st century art reflects the unprecedented market demand for art by living artists. There is no doubt that the art in these contemporary sales is absolutely fabulous, and when you survey the modern and contemporary sales, the newest work does feel fresh and incredibly satisfying. With waiting lists at galleries for some of the hottest emerging artists—who can only produce so much (good) art in a year—artworks that were painted in 2019, 2020, and 2021 are showing up at auction, and bursting past their estimates at jaw-dropping rates.

The concern of many in the artworld, however, is that emerging artists are missing out on the financial returns. More often than not, it is collectors who are flipping the paintings, after having purchased them at modest “emergent prices” from the artist’s gallery. We are seeing some glimpses where artists are submitting their paintings straight to auction, and reaping the rewards. Until recently, it was considered inappropriate—and even arrogant—for an artist to bypass galleries and sell new work directly to auction. Damien Hirst was one such rare case with his 2008 Sotheby’s auction of new work fresh from his studio, and even as a market veteran, he was called “cocky” by more than one critic for the stunt.

In the NFT market, it is almost exclusively artists who are selling their work at auction (see my post on the Christie’s auction with Beeple’s recent HUMAN ONE, or my general blog post on NFTs, for more on the current NFT trend). But anyways, perhaps with the new trend toward contemporary—and the auction houses’ pivot to serve this market—it’ll be more commonplace to see artists selling directly through auction.

Sotheby’s took another note from the Christie’s playbook, too: they took advantage of the many eyes on the popular modern and contemporary sales to squeeze in an anachronistic but high-profile item: a single lot sale of a copy of the original printed U.S. Constitution, one of only two copies that exists in private hands (out of 13 extant copies total). Wedged between “The Now” and Contemporary evening sale, the Constitution was offered by private collector Dorothy Tapper Goldman, and sold to billionaire collector Kenneth Griffin for $43.2 million.

As always, year on year, as the art market continues to reach dizzying and seemingly endless heights, I reflect on what it says about our culture and society at large. While I love art—which, if you’re reading this blog, I am sure you do too—I am alarmed at the excess of the artworld, especially now, when so many people in the world face financial insecurity in the midst of COVID. The strength of the art market is a symptom—and powerful symbol—of the growing wealth inequality of our times. So until we address wealth inequality in a major way, I don’t think we will see much of a deflation in the art market soon.

There was a lot to cover this year, so I’ve broken up the summaries of the auctions’ offerings into different posts—you can read about Sotheby’s’ sales here, and Christie’s’ sales here. Remember, when I speak of pre-sale estimates it refers to hammer prices, whereas any final selling price I quote includes the buyer’s premium (the buyer’s fees to the auction house).

As always, peace, love and art.

Until 2022.

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