Accounting for auctions: the season’s print and photography auctions reveal a variety of trends that may soon trickle down to the published art market

Accounting for auctions: the season’s print and photography auctions reveal a variety of trends that may soon trickle down to the published art market

Barden Prisant

Imagine being a fortune teller reading through 2,700 tea leaves searching for patterns hidden therein. Such is the task of sifting through the 2,700 prints and photographs auctioned this season at the major sales held at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Is it possible to divine sales patters? Yes, indeed. And the news for the print world is rather promising.

Earlier in 2002, the auction market was exceedingly poor. This was evidenced by a number of moves within the industry, eBay sold Butterfield’s, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Inc. sold its stake in Phillips, Christie’s closed its East branch in New York, Sotheby’s closed its Arcade branch, and Sloan’s went bankrupt.

Encouragingly, though, a detailed analysis of this season’s print auctions indicates that graphics may be surviving the storm.

At the prints sale held at Sotheby’s New York in November, only 32 percent of the pieces failed to find buyers. At the parallel Christie’s New York sale, the buy-in rate was even lower. Only 21 percent of the lots went unsold. According to Kelly Troester, head of the print department at Christie’s, the sale was “pretty straightforward, boring and consistent.” In light of today’s sluggish economy, she believes “boring and consistent” is a good thing. “We are very happy,” she said.

Print Market Indicators

To what might the print world owe this quite respectable performance? According to Troester, “if there is a downturn, prints are (practically) the last to feel the effect.” She attributes this to the fact that “prints are more accessible to the public.” In other words, since multiples are typically less expensive than originals, they are more attractive to penny-pinching buyers. Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that the off-season sales held at Christie’s, those sales which include the lowest-priced items, have been performing even better than the main sales. One even had a buy-in rate as low as 16 percent.

Therefore, the lesson for a dealer reading these tea leaves is that collectors who used to buy large oils may now be readjusting their sights and adding prints to their collections instead.

What else can be learned as regards the attitudes of the buyers at the print auctions? Mary Bartow, the head of the Sotheby’s print department, said the bidders were “careful,” and evidencing this is the fact that nine of the top 10 lots in the Sotheby’s sale sold within estimate. Troester observed that so many of the pieces sell within estimate because it is “so easy to predict the prices;” all parties involved simply review the past sales of comparable examples in order to determine fair values for the works on offer.

Thus, not only are purchasers focusing on more affordable items, but, in Bartow’s words, “they are studying them a little more.”

Portrait of a Buyer

Who, then, is doing the buying at these auctions? According to Troester, there are “always new young couples and collectors coming into the market for prints; they feed at the bottom.” It would also seem that they sometimes feed in from the top. Bartow confided that it was a younger buyer who bought Edvard Munch’s “The Kiss IV” for $207,500. It turned out this was only the second piece he had ever bought through Sotheby’s. The lesson? It might be wise to market to Generation X.

Who is not shopping at the auctions? Dealers. According to Troester, “dealers are having a harder time with their stock.” She has heard a number of them “saying they had a rough summer or early fall.” Bartow offers further evidence of this trend when she observed that “dealer problems” have caused a weakness in the market for medium-priced works.

Of course, for her, medium-priced means $5,000 to $30,000. Nevertheless, in light of the evident lack of competition, this might be the time for the well-heeled to consider a purchase at that level.

Sellable Artists: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?

Did the auctions offer any clues as to which artists were hot and which were not?

“Picasso all the way,” said Troester,” and Warhol.” For the former, she observed that “Picasso is where a lot of collectors are starting.” For Warhol, she related a humorous story about a dealer who is focusing his efforts on pieces with large signatures. He finds that his clients want these “so they can be easily read by their friends.”

Over at Sotheby’s, Bartow agreed that the market for Warhol prints is still healthy. In fact, Pop Art is generally is a safe bet. All of the 12 Harings on offer at the Sotheby’s sale found buyers, and two even sold over their estimates.

All in all, “the blue chips” fared well. Every one of the top 10 lots at the Christie’s sale were by household-names: Picasso, Johns, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec.

What type of works fared poorly? Old Masters. Bartow observed the interest in such pieces is “really weak” because there are “no new collectors getting into that market.” She said even the youngest new collector of Old Master prints she knows is in his 60s. Evidencing the lack of interest in such pieces is a spectacular set of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s pieces, entitled “Carceri d’Invenzione” (est. $150,000 to $200,000), that went unsold at Sotheby’s.

Bartow thinks there are two main reasons why Old Master prints are hard to market. One, they lack color, and two, they frequently require the purchaser to have an intimate knowledge of ancient mythology, history, classics or religion. As she said, people now “want an immediate understanding of a piece–Old Master prints take too much.”

Of course, this does open the way for dealers looking for new opportunities. There may be hidden cadres of well-rounded clients across the country just aching for Old Master prints. Since such works can now be purchased relatively inexpensively, this might be the time for galleries to stock up. Incidentally, to choose from the broadest selection, it might be advisable to bid at the London auctions. Troester said her department frequently transfers their Old Master print consignments to London for sale.

Focusing on Photography

One genre that has not held up well is photography. At the Christie’s Photographs sale in October, 53 percent of the works went unsold. Leila Buckjune, head of Christie’s photographs department, said “buyers continue to be highly selective.” Not even Elvis could save the sale. It had been hoped that William Eggleston’s set of 11 color photos depicting Graceland (est. $180,000 to $280,000 for the set) would be the sale’s top lot. Unfortunately, no devoted fan was willing to pony up for the suite.

Over at Sotheby’s, the main photo sale, also in October, fared only a bit better–41 percent went unsold. Unlike Christie’s, though, they did have a savior–two to be precise: the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the City of New York. In the run-up to the mixed-lot sale, Sotheby’s held two “single owner” auctions in which 296 works consigned by these two institutions were deaccessioned. Only 21 percent of the MOMA pieces and 24 percent of the MCNY images failed to find buyers.

As Denise Bethel, Director of Sotheby’s photographs department said, “for images of such quality and provenance, there is almost no limit to the number of lots that can be sold for excellent prices.”

Looking to the Future

Returning to the print realm for some final prognostication, one might wonder what the future holds. Bartow foresees “more of the same,” and Troester enters the new year “hoping it hangs in there.” If the market does not improve, however, it is possible that the auction house malaise cited earlier may spread yet further. Troester said she would regret any further cutbacks or additional bankruptcies in the industry. As she put it: “It’s healthy for everybody to be healthy.”

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