Annual drop

Edvard Munch’s Pikena Pa Broen (Girls on the Bridge) — US$54.49 million.

Gerhard Richter’s A B, Still — US$33.99 million.

Pablo Picasso’s Buste de femme (Dora Maar) — US$22.65 million.

Gerhard Richter’s Düsenjäger — US$25.57 million.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Rigide et courbé —US $23.32 million.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 21, 2016.


WHEN Claude Monet’s Meule Haystacks from 1891 appeared on the stage at Christie’s last Wednesday night, there was a visible stirring in the audience. People took out their phones to take pictures, and others craned their necks to see the lovely deep red, purple, and blue painting. It was the top lot of the last Thursday’s Impressionist & Modern sales, carrying a presale estimate of US$45 million (RM198.9 million).

Like much of the rest of the week, bidding started slowly, with anonymous phone bidders gradually pushing up the price in million-dollar increments, and after more than 14 minutes the hammer came down on a final price of US$72.5 million. With auction house fees, that total was pushed to US$81.4 million, a world-record at auction for Monet. The audience applauded, and for the first time in a while, it wasn’t just polite golf claps: Finally the auction market, if only briefly, had regained its mojo.

But take a broader view of this November’s “bellwether” sales, and that doesn’t quite hold true. This year, Bloomberg reported, the week of impressionist, modern, postwar, and contemporary art auctions experienced a 49% contraction from last year, with around US$1 billion of art on offer. Given the diminished expectations and the lack of blockbuster paintings (other than the Monet), it’s perhaps unsurprising that the final tally of the three auction houses fell squarely within expectations, with day and evening sales totalling about US$1.2 billion.

Further proof that sales were solid but not spectacular was the relative dearth of jaw-dropping prices. Last fall, the top lot was Modigliani’s Nu couché, which sold for US$170.4 million, or more than twice this year’s top lot, the Monet. Last year, the top 10 lots totalled $678.8 million; this year, it was about a half of that, totalling just US$378.75 million.

Whether this drop in value is the result of a dearth of sellers willing to part with those high-quality artworks or a dearth of people willing to pay for those high-quality artworks remains to be seen. The most optimistic spin, based on the Monet’s runaway success, would be that the money is out there and that owners of “quality” artworks are hesitant to subject them to an uneven market.

A more cynical take, however, would be to point out that the US$170 million Modigliani of last year, and indeed many of the paintings that dominate the highest echelons of the art market, are only vaguely important to art history: Few would seriously argue that Gerhard Richter’s US$34 million “squeegee” painting (No 4 on this year’s list) has three times the significance of a rare painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder that sold last year for US$9.3 million at Sotheby’s in London. Price, in other words, is not always an indicator of quality or stature, so the narrative that prices are low because quality is low doesn’t totally stand up.

So were the following top-10 sales worth it? That’s up to time, critics, and, of course, the future art market to decide. Check them out. — Bloomberg