Mixed Fortunes at Sotheby’s Frieze Week Auctions Reflect Market Volatility

Sotheby's evening sale Photo courtesy Sotheby's

London’s Frieze Week auctions at Sotheby’s presented a tale of contrasts, revealing the unpredictable nature of the current art market. Amid geopolitical tension and economic uncertainty, the auctions started with two events: The Now sale, spotlighting ultra-contemporary art, and an evening sale of contemporary art. The outcomes included records, surprising successes, and notable disappointments.

The Now Sale: A Blend of Hits and Misses

Sotheby’s The Now sale exceeded expectations, fetching £15.5 million ($19 million), despite its modest presale target of £9.4 million to £13.6 million. Noteworthy performances included Lynette Yiadome-Boakye’s “Six Birds in the Bush” (2015), which set a new auction record for a Black British woman artist, soaring past estimates to reach £2.9 million ($3.6 million). Cecily Brown’s “Tricky” (2001) also outperformed, making £2.6 million ($3.2 million) against its estimate of £1.2 million to £1.8 million.

However, the sale witnessed a range of outcomes. While some artworks far exceeded expectations, others failed to secure buyers, like Jordan Casteel’s portrait “Jonathan” (estimated at £300,000 to £400,000). The auction saw significant participation from American buyers, with one-third of the lots going to the US.

Contemporary Art Evening Sale: A Stark Contrast

The top lot was to have been Peter Doig’s contemplative By a River (2004) with an estimate of £3 million to £4 million, however, it was withdrawn for lack of presale interest. The mood drastically shifted in the subsequent contemporary art evening sale. With a presale estimate ranging from £39.9 million to £57.9 million, the auction faced hurdles even before it began, with four other lots withdrawn, including works by renowned artists like Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter.

Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild” (1986) carried the highest estimate of the sale (£16 million to £24 million) but failed to meet expectations, stopping at £14.5 million. The absence of significant bids for this pivotal piece impacted the sale total, ultimately reaching £30.2 million ($37 million).

Francis Bacon’s “Study for a Portrait” (1979) was a highlight, realizing £4.3 million ($5.3 million) with a guarantee, while Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin sculpture, estimated at £2.4 million, sold for £3 million ($3.66 million).

Despite these individual successes, the auction’s overall performance highlighted the market’s ongoing volatility. Established artists like Frank Bowling and Georg Baselitz achieved modest gains. Still, stalwarts like Pat Steir and Robert Ryman sold at a loss compared to previous auction prices, underscoring the market’s uncertain trajectory.

The auctions echoed the art world’s current flux, with shifting tastes and economic challenges shaping buyers’ decisions. Market participants left the event with mixed feelings, acknowledging the complexity of today’s art market. As geopolitical events and economic factors continue to influence the art world, navigating these uncertainties remains a significant challenge for buyers, sellers, and auction houses alike.

Top Photo: Sotheby’s Evening Sale Photo courtesy Sotheby’s

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