2022 has been an incredible year for the art market. Many of the major auction houses achieved record highs in sales. Christie’s came out on top this year with $8.4 billion in sales, the highest any auction house has performed in the market’s history. Looking at the data, it’s not surprising since four of the top five highest-grossing sales of the year took place at Christie’s New York. Additionally, four of the year’s top five lots were also sold there.
These four lots, Les Poseuses by Georges Seurat ($130M), La Montagne Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne ($120M), Verger avec cyprès by Vincent van Gogh ($102M), and Maternité II by Paul Gauguin ($92M) were all part of the same sale: the Paul Allen collection evening sale on November 9th. Not only was this the most expensive sale of the year, but the most expensive sale of all time. It was the first time a single auction or a single collection brought in over $1 billion, with sixty lots bringing in a total of $1.29B. While these paintings brought incredible prices, none of them made it to the top of the list. That designation goes to Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, which sold at Christie’s New York on May 9th. This large screenprint achieved a hammer price of $170M ($195M w/p), constituting over 60% of the sale’s $273M total.
The Thomas & Doris Ammann Collection, in which the Warhol was featured, came in fifth place in the year’s top sales. In fact, three of the year’s highest-earning sales took place at Christie’s New York within a single week. The Ammann Collection on Monday, May 9th started things off, while three days later, it was beaten by the Anne H. Bass Collection. This was a relatively short sale consisting mainly of impressionist works by Monet and Degas but also featuring two of Mark Rothko’s color field paintings. These twelve lots brought in a total of $313.5M. This is not surprising since the Bass Collection was also one of the year’s top sales in terms of lots exceeding their estimates, with eight of the twelve lots selling for more than the specialists had predicted. Normally, that would be a pretty decent day for Christie’s. But it seems it was not enough because immediately after the Bass sale closed, they went into their much longer 20th Century Evening Sale, which took this year’s second-place spot at $401.5M. This sale was also one of the year’s most successful in specialist accuracy, with 20 of the sale’s 42 lots (or 48%) falling within their estimates. The only one of the top five sales that did not occur at Christie’s was the May 17th Modern Evening Sale at Sotheby’s New York. The combination of impressionist and twentieth-century abstract works, including those by Picasso, Cézanne, and Monet, put this sale in the third-place spot with a total hammer of $345.65M.
2022 was also a year full of surprises for the art market. Many will probably remember The Sugar Shack by the American painter Ernie Barnes selling at the 20th Century Evening Sale on May 12th at Christie’s New York for $13M ($15.3M w/p), or 65 times its $200K high estimate. However, one lot was an even greater surprise in terms of exceeding the specialist estimates. It may have gone under the radar because it wasn’t a multi-million dollar hammer price. Picasso’s two-sided drawing Nu and Dates ‘8 septembre’ sold at the October 19th Modern Discoveries sale at Sotheby’s London for £32K (or $39.9K) when it was only meant to sell for no more than £200. While the Sugar Shack hit 65 times its high estimate, the Picasso drawing achieved a hammer price 160 times the experts’ predictions. Some of this year’s other surprises included Antoni Clavé’s Portrait d’un marin fumant, featured at the July 20th Modern Discoveries at Sotheby’s New York, selling for $38K, or 47.5 times the $800 high estimate. And lastly, of course, not forgetting the Old Masters, an oil-on-panel painting called Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by an anonymous Flemish or Netherlandish artist only known as the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. It was featured at the Old Masters sale held at Bonhams New Bond Street on July 6th. With an estimate of £25K to £30K, it was nowhere on the specialists’ radar, yet it came to surpass its high estimate by a factor of 21. With an Edward Collier trompe l’oeil and a Bartolomeo Passarotti portrait failing to meet their reserves, both highly valued in this sale, Adam & Eve became the auction’s top lot, with a hammer of £640K (or $761.3K).
But of course, with the surprises and the successes, there had to be a few let-downs. Unfortunately, several sales ended with high percentages of unsold lots. Often, this had more to do with the condition and estimates of the works being offered. The first one happened in January when Sotheby’s offered a group of 19th-century European paintings. Many of the lots had condition issues, some more serious than others, and the presale estimates seemed out of touch with the current market. That sale saw 31% of the works go unsold, which, to be honest, is better than we expected. Then we saw similar results in Sotheby’s May sale Belle Époque Splendor: The Discerning Eye of a Collector – a totally misleading title. It should have been called Belle Époque Splendor: The Blurry-Eyed Collector. This sale was filled with mediocre-quality works, several of which had serious condition issues. Some of the lots were actually unfinished works. These were not pieces a truly “discerning collector” would want to own. It resulted in an unsold rate of about 42%, which was still better than what we would have expected given the offerings. And who can forget Sotheby’s October 20th sale of 19th Century Works of Art? It really should have been called The Get Rid of the Stuff sale. This one ended up with about 41% of the works being bought-in. The top lot was Franz von Stuck’s Danae and the Golden Shower. It was not in the best condition, carrying a $10K to $15K estimate. Yet it sold for $130K (or $164K w/p), more than eight times what was expected – go figure. Towards the end of the year, Bonhams New York’s December 6th Impressionist & Modern sale was among the worst, generating a 45% unsold rate and grossing a measly $925.2K, when they were expecting at least $4.9M. Maybe December is just too late in the season to have a very successful sale?
However, some of the biggest disappointments were in this year’s 20th century and contemporary sales. One of this year’s greatest let-downs was at the November 17th 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York, where Willem de Kooning’s Untitled III, estimated to sell for more than $35M, unfortunately went unsold. Similarly, Paul Gauguin’s Pêcheur et baigneurs sur l’Aven, with an estimate range of $6M to $8M, went unsold in that same sale. A Sunflower from Maggie by Georgia O’Keeffe, also with a $6M to $8M estimate range, failed to sell at the May 12th 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York. These are just a few of the biggies that failed to find a new home. You might be wondering why? Well, your guess is as good as ours.
Overall, the art market did well through 2022, and it is our hope that interest in acquiring high-quality, good-condition works will continue for years to come.