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The Americans Take Center Stage In New York

May 31, 2018


Last week, we saw both Sotheby’s and Christie’s take their shot at the American Art market with sales in their New York bases. After seemingly endless sales from the weeks prior, expectations were mixed… and the results were modest at best.


Christie’s was up first and leading the way, as expected, was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hibiscus. Painted in 1939, it came in with the highest estimate of the evening at $4-6M and hit the middle of the range with the help of the buyer’s premium… the work realized $4.8M ($4M hammer). Behind that was one of the top performing lots of the evening… Milton Avery’s Red Nude more than doubled it’s $1-1.5M estimate as it found a buyer at $3.01M. Rounding out the top three was Norman Rockwell’s Piano Tuner, which was actually a bit of a disappointment at $2.7M – Christie’s had expected the work to bring between $3-5M… it fell well short of that range when you consider the $2.7M included the buyer’s premium, putting the hammer price at $2.3M. In the end, the sale totaled $32.8M while selling 82% of the material offered… I wish I could tell you how that compared to the overall estimate range, but Christie’s is a difficult nut to crack sometimes (I tried to figure it out myself, but Christie’s pulls the unsold work from their website once the sale wraps up).


I am always wary when an auction house is evasive over the final results – the only press release they issued was lumped in with the Art of the Americas evening sale (Rockefeller collection from weeks prior), which certainly inflated the look of things as the headline boasted $141M for the “Spring Season of American Art.” All that said, I can’t imagine things were too good… when anything good happens they shout it from the rooftops.

(update: After writing my report, I was finally granted approval for them to release the presale estimate to me… Yay! It was $26.7-41.3M, so the $32.8M was towards the middle of that range… and again, remember the estimate range does not include buyer’s premium and the above-stated total does – I’ve always found that to be a misleading way to report this but hey, what can you do?)


The following day, Sotheby’s had their chance… they offered up a bulky 120 lot sale and the results showed that no one wanted the “fluff.” Easily taking the top spot was Rockwell’s Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe, which sold for more than $8.1M ($7M hammer) on a $7-10M estimate. It’s just one of the dozen-plus works that were being sold by the Berkshire Museum, which has caused a national controversy in recent months over museums deaccessioning donated pieces. In fact, this even brought about a small protest outside the auction house the morning of the sale! We can only speculate the impact this may have had on the final results… that said, only 3 of the 4 works from the museum in this sale found buyers, leaving Frederic Edwin Church’s majestic Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada unsold (est. $5-7M) – that is the second failure from the museum’s 13 works that have been offered so far (it’s also worth noting that many of the ones that did sell, underperformed based on the auction house estimates… and yes, after the sale Sotheby’s was able to negotiate a private sale of the Church to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for an undisclosed sum).


Getting back to the matter at hand, works by NC Wyeth and Rockwell rounded out the top three as they both far surpassed their estimates… Wyeth’s Portrait of a Farmer sold to an American collector for just shy of $6M (est. $2.5-3.5M) and Rockwell’s Boy Playing Flute Surrounded by Animals went to an anonymous buyer for a bit over $4M (est. $1.5-2.5M). At the end of the evening, they moved 80 of the 120 lots (66.67%) for a total of $43.3M… they were expecting between $40-60M, so they really needed the buyer’s premium to make it into the range.


At a quick glance, it looks like Christie’s had the better sale… they sold a higher percentage of the material, leaving just 15 unsold works compared to Sotheby’s 40 … and they landed pretty close to the middle of the estimate range for the sale as a whole.  But for a more accurate comparison of how the sold lots performed, we can look at the average price per lot sold … that would be about $475K at Christie’s vs. $541K at Sotheby’s.  In addition, if we remove the unsold works from the equation we find that Christie’s presale estimate comes in at $23.12-$35.88M with a total of $32.8M vs. Sotheby’s at $27.6-$42.1M and a total of $43.3M.  So, while the sale totals when compared to the overall estimate ranges give one impression, a deeper look at the results paint a slightly different picture.