Autumn auction season: What really drove art sales in New York this November?

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Tamara de Lempicka's La Tunique Rose. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Art for art’s sake or art as investment? When there’s a slight downturn in the market for fine art you can bet your boots that one or another Jeremiah in the popular media will be prophesying doom and disaster.

Without pointing a finger, that’s precisely what appears to have happened ahead of this autumn’s auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York. The Jeremiahs couldn’t resist writing reports headlined with the news that the auction houses’ estimates for each sale were anything from 30% to 50% lower than those of November 2018. In other words, the press would have us believe, catastrophe loomed.

To some extent the blame for this might have been laid at the auction houses’ doors. This autumn, fewer of what one might call “great” works were on offer than a year ago. Their owners prefer to enjoy their works – art for art’s sake – rather than raise a fistful of dollars. So, what was needed to sustain the interest of those who were buying art as an investment was a degree of auction house psychology. Pitch the pre-sale estimate low so that when a work sells at a significantly higher price, the headlines can be counted on to shout it from the rooftops. Not to mention, of course, that sales results include the buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted; presale estimates do not.

Alberto Giacometti’s Buste d’homme. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Is this what happened with Alberto Giacometti’s 1953 sculpture Buste d’homme (Diego au blouson) or Tamara de Lempicka’s 1927 painting La Tunique rose? Sotheby’s had tagged both of them with equal pre-sale high estimates of $8m. On the evening of November 12, brisk bidding pushed the Giacometti to a hammer price of $12.3m (or $14.2m if one includes the buyer’s premium) while the de Lempicka was knocked down for $11.5m ($13.4m with premium) an all-time record for one of her works.

Read Monet’s ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ Leads Sotheby’s $209 Million sale

Is it that Art Deco typified by de Lempicka is currently more fashionable than the Impressionism of Claude Monet? His Charing Cross Bridge had a Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate of $20m to $30m and just scraped inside the estimate range at a hammer price of $27.6m. That was the top price at the Tuesday evening sale – others struggled or failed to reach their reserve prices.

And on Wednesday, Monet’s Étretat, Coucher du Soleil dated 1883 was knocked down for just over $3m after a pre-sale estimate of between $1.2m and $1.8m.

La seize septembre, by René Magritte. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Should we have been prepared? On the first evening, November 11 at Christie’s, Pablo Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil (Francoise) (1949) had achieved a hammer price of $13.3m, just within the pre-sale estimate range of $12m to $18m.

At the same auction, René Magritte’s surreal 1957 work, Le seize septembre had soared above its high pre-sale estimate of $10m to reach a hammer price of $19.6m – nearly double the top estimate.

But all this, of course, could be categorised as art for investment. The people buying these masterpieces are not in it to turn a quick buck. Take the Picasso – it had been owned by the same family since May 2000. That’s almost 20 years ago, and it has only now been offered for sale as part of a deceased estate. As for Monet’s Étretat, that has been with the same owner since mid-1990. That’s art for art’s sake – thousands of days of the pleasure of being able to gaze on the work.

Accuse me of being a romantic rather than a hard-nosed investor, but is art really a financial investment to beat others? When you buy at auction, the price is boosted by a buyer’s commission and other charges that can add anything from 15% to 20% to the hammer price. And when you sell, there’s the discount that goes to the auction house. In the meantime, there’s the cost of ownership – insurance, environmental, storage and the rest.

Buying or investing in art is often a matter of letting one’s heart rule one’s head.