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Feb. 13, 2009 

Sotheby’s auction house sold $5.3 billion worth of art in 2008, according to an announcement of summary results for 2008 (the firm’s complete, audited report is due on Feb. 26, 2009). The total puts Sotheby’s ahead of arch-rival Christie’s, which posted sales of $5.1 billion (see Christie’s report, below).

Auction sales totaled $4.9 billion in the period, Sotheby’s said, leaving about $400 million for revenue from private sales, dealer revenue and auction post-sale transactions. The numbers given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium.

The total is well below the $6.2 billion Sotheby’s reported for 2007, reflecting the economic downturn that hit the art market with a vengeance in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Sotheby’s claims the top lot of 2008, Francis Bacon’s Triptych (1976), which sold for $86.3 million, a record for a work of contemporary art at auction. Other top lots included Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition and Yves Klein’s golden MG 9, which sold for $60 million and $23.6 million, respectively. Sotheby’s sold six of the ten top lots in 2008.

The firm reports that it sold 14 lots for over $20 million, 41 lots for over $10 million and 726 lots for over $1 million. Sotheby’s seems to be going for the higher-priced lots in general, for it said it reduced lot volume in 2008 by 38 percent.

Christie’s sales for 2008 totaled $5.1 billion, the firm said, a number that represents a drop in 11 percent from its 2007 sales total of $6.1 billion. Private sales in 2008 totaled $487 million, including revenues from Haunch of Venison, the private gallery that the auction house bought in early 2007.

Christie’s said it conducted more than 600 sales in 14 salesrooms worldwide, selling 629 works of art at auction for over $1 million each. As auction expert Josh Baer in his Baer Faxt noted, together the two firms sold 1,355 works for over $1 million. "That’s almost four a day!" 

The shift of the market from New York to London, noticed by market observers and generally attributed to the weak rate of exchange for the U.S. dollar, is confirmed by the numbers: Business was up in London and Europe by 14 percent, rising to $2.25 billion, while sales totals fell in the United States by 30 percent, to $1.18 billion.

The conundrum presented by exchange rates is well illustrated by the results of Hong Kong sales. They increased by six percent if measured in pounds (to £248.5 million), and decreased by four percent if measured in dollars (to $452.3 million).

Sales volume rose in the Asian art category (going up 4 percent to $678.7 million), but fell in all the other art categories. Impressionist and modern was down 17 percent to $1.2 billion; post-war and contemporary was down 30 percent to $1.086 billion; Old Masters were down 29 percent to $216 million; American pictures were down 27 percent to $107.5 million; Russian art was down 59 percent to $59 million; and Latin American paintings were down 18 percent to 49.8 million.

Top lots at Christie’s in 2008 included a Claude Monet water lily painting from 1919 ($80.5 million, a new auction record for the artist), a Francis Bacon triptych from 1977 ($51.7 million), and Mark Rothko’s No. 15 from 1952 ($50.4 million). Christie’s also sold Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon (1966) for $32.5 million.

Sotheby’s London
was justly proud of its evening sale of contemporary art on Feb. 5, 2009, as the notably truncated auction -- only 27 works -- posted a rather nice sell-through rate of more than 92 percent, with all but two lots finding buyers. The sale total was £17,879,250 ($25,785,250), which the firm called "one of the highest ever achieved for a February sale in this category at Sotheby’s."

The top lot was Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (1962), a swirling punctured escutcheon of gold and white paint, which sold for £4,409,250 ($6,259,020). Three bidders vied for the lot, which fell in the end to a private European buyer on the telephone.

Another top lot was Jeff KoonsStacked (1988), a polychromed wood sculpture of four farm animals stacked one atop the other, surmounted by a cute bird, from the artist’s "Banality" series, which sold for £2,841,250. The work had previously sold in 1997 for $250,000, and was being sold this time around by Chicago collector Richard Cooper, according to press reports. The buyer was billed as "U.S. Trade," so expect the work to show up on the market again.

Six days later, on the evening of Feb. 11, 2009, Christie’s London held its evening sale of post-war and contemporary art. The sale total was a modest $12,085,560, with 23 of 29 lots finding buyers, or 79 percent.

The  two most expensive works in the auction, Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue (est. £4 million-£6 million) and Mark Rothko’s Green, Blue, Green on Blue (est. £2.5 million-£3.5 million), failed to find buyers. "All in all, it was pretty miserable," wrote Josh Baer.

Still, prices for contemporary art remain otherworldly. The top-selling lot was Jeff KoonsMonkeys (Ladder) (2003), a nine-foot-tall painting from the artist’s "Popeye" series, which sold for £1,385,250 (ca. $2,000,000), including premium, just under the presale low estimate of £1,400,000. The buyer was Gagosian Gallery, according to the Baer Faxt.

Other top lots included Willem de Kooning’s Women Singing I (1966), which went for £825,250, and Jenny Saville’s Juncture (1994), which sold for £457,250, above the presale high estimate. Both the Koons and the de Kooning were billed as "fresh to the market."

Phillips de Pury & Co.
held its contemporary art evening sale in London on Feb. 12, 2009, totaling £4,213,250 with 35 of 53 lots selling, or 66 percent. The estimated value for the entire sale was £6.8 million-£9.3 million.

Top lot was Martin Kippenberger’s Portrait of Paul Schreber (Designed by Himself), which sold for £432,000, at the low end of its presale estimate.

Dan Colen’s Untitled (Going, Going, Go. . .), a small storybook-style oil painting of a candle whose smoke spells out the title phrase, sold for £92,500, more than double the presale high estimate and a new auction record for the artist.

For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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