Caution Stalks Art Market

NEW YORK CITY -- At Rockefeller Center yesterday -- milling outside Christie’s sales rooms where private clients sipped mimosas as they took in one of Monet’s grainstacks — people in the art world sounded guardedly optimistic about how the auctions will perform this week, after a period of uncertainty exacerbated by the contentious American presidential election, Britain’s “Brexit” vote in June, and China’s slowing economy.

The auction house's staid serenity contrasted with all the noise just a few blocks north coming from thousands of demonstrators protesting a Trump government.

The sales of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art that start today offer the first test of how the art market will react to a Trump presidency and whether it will continue a softening trend that, for the past year, has had potential sellers reluctant to consign their best works.

The three major auction houses — Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips — are entering this week’s sales with fewer trophies of more than $20 million than they have had in the recent past.

Over all, the estimated sales in postwar and contemporary art are half what they were last year. The evening auctions of postwar and contemporary art at the three houses, for example, are expected to draw about $536 million, compared with $1.2 billion for the same auctions in November 2015.

In uncertain times, collectors like to hold onto their prizes rather than risk a disappointing hammer price. Despite the challenging timing of the sales, the auction houses have managed to squeak out a few prizes.

Girls on the Bridge

Sotheby’s secured Edvard Munch’s 1902 painting, “The Girls on the Bridge,” as shown here, one of only two in private hands with this subject matter that is expected to sell in Monday night’s Impressionism and Modern auction for more than $50 million.

It is one of only three works in the sale with a guarantee — a pledged minimum price; the others are a Picasso and a van Gogh. (Sellers of guaranteed works typically receive all of the hammer price and part of the buyer’s fees, with the auction house sometimes making a minimal profit.)

The auction house also secured the collection of Steven and Ann Ames, New York arts patrons, for its Contemporary sale Thursday evening — albeit with the help of a $100 million guarantee. It includes two colorful paintings by Gerhard Richter (one from 1986 and one from 1988), each estimated at $20 million to $30 million.

Christie’s’ highlights include a 1977 Willem de Kooning work, “Untitled XXV,” one of the artist’s large “pastoral” paintings, which is expected to sell for around $40 million on Tuesday night, at its Postwar and Contemporary sale.

On Wednesday night, Christie’s Impressionist and Modern star lots include the Monet grainstack from 1891, which is expected to sell for more than $45 million, and a 1961 example of Jean Dubuffet’s Paris Circus series, estimated at $15 million to $20 million.

Shortage of Masterpieces

Given a shortage of masterpieces, auction houses have been forced to get creative.

Phillips is selling Roy Lichtenstein’s “Nudes in Mirror” (1994), which was slashed by a deranged woman in 2005 while on exhibition in Vienna. Typically, an auction house would play down that kind of damage to a painting. Instead, Phillips has produced a separate section of the catalog detailing its history.

Yet history suggests and art experts say, that single events rarely affect sales. “The market has been pretty impervious to just about every event with the exception of the global meltdown of 2008,” said Robert Manley, who recently became Phillips’s new co-head of 20th century & contemporary art after 16 years at Christie’s.

In fact, most real estate developers looking to purchase major works for their lobbies, offices, and mansions probably voted for Trump.