The art market is its own universe in many regards, but nowhere is this clearer than the calendar it has created and adheres to, completely separate to the one that dictates the day to day lives of those outside it. In the art world, the Gregorian calendar is replaced by the collective understanding that specific months in certain seasons are defined by which heavy hitter auction is taking place within it. The month of May, for instance, belongs to the New York offices and their Contemporary/Post-War and Modern/Impressionist sales, while London has traditionally claimed June auctions of those same sectors. With regards to the latter, ‘traditionally’ is the operative word.
By the conclusion of London’s June auctions of Contemporary and Impressionist art, there was a palpable sense of impending change. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s struggled to find buyers for their most expensive works, which would typically sell with ease: Christie’s Post War to Present sale on June 28, which featured 134 lots, took three auctioneers more than three hours to realize a sale total of £10.4 million against the cumulative pre-sale estimate of £8.8-£12.7 million. During their Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale, Sotheby’s 1932 Picasso portrait of his mistress drew only a single $36 million bid against an estimate of $45 million. By contrast, works by ‘second rate’ artists like Franz Marc and Camille Claudel experienced a surge in demand and outperformed pre-sale estimates. German Expressionists like Marc seem to be particularly sought after across the globe: at Grogan & Company’s June auction, a trove of works on paper by Lyonel Feininger exceeded all expectations, with a high sale through rate and an even higher sale by value rate.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in their coverage of the June auctions, this shift toward the middle market began last month in New York, where collectors fought over works priced below $10 million- a noticeable turnabout from earlier seasons when wealthy buyers were focused on items at the top end of the market. The Journal concluded with a question to its readers: does this pivot to the midmarket represent a seasonal fluke or a lasting shift? While the June auctions were by no means a failure- especially in Phillips' case, which was up 42% from 2017- numbers were down from previous years; yet rather than indicate an unsteady future for the highest profile sectors of the art market, I sense that what it comes down to was simply a case of buyer fatigue. London’s June auctions have typically followed extremely high profile sales in New York, but they have been able to escape potential fatigue through careful scheduling and meticulous curation that grant enough differentiation in their offerings from that of their US’ counterpart. What they cannot account for, however, is the increasing sophistication and legitimization of the art fair as a go-to source for purchasing art. The Big Three now share their June limelight with renowned fairs like Art Basel, as well as smaller yet impressive ones like Masterpiece London.
Art fairs offer prestigious masterpieces as well as accessible, middle market works that cater to a wide variety of buyers and collectors. The resulting impact of this is twofold: blue-chip collectors may have already exhausted their budgets and satisfied their needs by the time the auctions roll around, and the accessibility and affordability of the offerings at art fairs likely impacts the buyer trends at and perception of auctions. The Art Newspaper aptly summarized the problem the auction houses face in the midst of the disruption caused by the art fairs: due to the chronic issue of May auctions in New York and Art Basel in early June exhausting the supply of top-end consignments, auction houses will have to consider alternatives to the flashy evening sale format. In a shocking move last year, Christie’s decided to skip its traditional contemporary evening sale in favor of a daylong sale of works priced below $150,000. This decision has likely set a new precedent that its competitors will soon follow: Ed Dolman, CEO of Philips, all but confirmed as much when he pondered whether June is now the optimum time to sell top-end works. In coming years, I think we will be witness to a rare adjustment in the Art World Calendar: London’s auctions may be pushed back into July, or will be adapted to cater to the demand for middle market works in more casual day sales.