in other words

Transcript #71 Auction Talk with Nick, Allan and Charlotte

by Charlotte Burns
Guest Nicholas Maclean. Photo by Matthew Magelof

Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

You’re joining us today for a special podcast recapping the recent auction week here in New York. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and our guests today are Nicholas Maclean of the London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean.

Nicholas Maclean: For me, the market is absolutely fine, but it’s still quite cautious.

Charlotte Burns: And Allan Schwartzman, the co-founder of Art Agency Partners and a chairman at Sotheby’s.

Allan Schwartzman: There were numerous signs that this cautious market does have an appetite for new stories.

Charlotte Burns: Before we begin, here is a quick reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at And now, onto today’s show.

This is our, I think, third time doing this so thank you very much for being our regular market commentators. Maybe we’ll start with a broad picture, and then we’ll go into specifics throughout the show. It seemed, going into the sales, that the mood wasn’t robust. People were a little bit nervous.

The Financial Times ran an article looking at ArtTactic’s confidence indicator—every six months ArtTactic examines a select group of art world insiders to ask them how they’re feeling about the art market—and their confidence was down. There had been a 29% drop since May, and that was already a fall of 24% between January and September 2018.

How did you feel going into the sales, and now that we’re not quite over—and I should say for our listeners, we’re recording this during the Sotheby’s day sale, so we don’t know totally where we’ve landed yet—how was your mood going into it, and where are you now?

Nicholas Maclean: I think the mood is much better than we expected. There was almost a sense that the art market might’ve been on life support, and we definitely don’t feel that now.

I think there were a quite a large number of works sold on the third-party guarantee, but that still means there was a buyer. Even though that person may have committed in advance, they’re still there.

You look at all the totals—yeah, they may be well down, but I see that Sotheby’s was at 92% sold; Phillips, 85%; 90% here for Christie’s Impressionist Modern. So, overall, it looked pretty strong. 89% for Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary.

It’s solid. Sales are slightly more difficult, and there is definitely a marked difference between A+ and A, in terms of prices achievable. And there’s certainly a feeling in that many collectors—and I use that word reservedly—are looking for names. There’s a little bit of the lemming aspect to the market, as well.

Charlotte Burns: Allan?

Allan Schwartzman: I would agree with what Nick is saying, but I would also add that one of the biggest challenges clearly remains sourcing. There’s less and less of the most desirable work, particularly at higher price levels.

There’s been an ongoing uncertainty about the market or, let’s say, a lack of urgency to buy. However, there is still an increasing number of people, in dollars, wanting to get into art collecting. So, the funny challenge today is that you have more demand, less supply, less confidence in what is worthy of that.

What we have tended to see is that as prices have gone higher for masterworks, the market has gotten more cautious and conservative, and leans more and more on the proven dependable names. I think what we’ve seen in the last few rounds of sales is that there hasn’t been the kind of momentum buying that we’ve seen in the past. Every lot seems to be taken in its own right.

Having said all of this, there seemed to be a greater depth of bidding and greater momentum that occurred in Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale, which I don’t think one could have anticipated going into it and I find that actually very hopeful and encouraging. It suggests that what I’ve been seeing as a far more cautious and conservative market is waiting for the opportunities to open doors to new areas. The question is, where do they have the confidence?

Charlotte Burns: Where there any surprises to you this season? Was it a predictable season? Was there anything that stood out to you especially?

Nicholas Maclean: Actually, I thought the sales did very well. Organizers and dealers are having to work incredibly hard at the moment. For the auction houses, there was really no estate this time. So, what Allan was just saying about picture-by-picture, I mean it really was the way. There was no chance to get a momentum through even just the collecting style of a particular estate, which may have encouraged one or two collectors to continue bidding throughout that. Each lot was purchased in its own right.

I think added to that, you’ve got obviously the removal of the 1031, the “Like-Kind Exchange”, which—

Charlotte Burns: The 1031 Exchange actually came about because of farming laws. It’s a law by which farmers could exchange one tractor for another, rather than having to pay tax on that again. And it got co-opted for lots of different industries including the art industry in which you could sell a work of art and put that money into another work of art rather than—

Nicholas Maclean: And therefore, not paying capital gains.

Charlotte Burns: Exactly. That doesn’t exist anymore.

Nicholas Maclean: And that had a big influence particularly on the secondary market, many collectors who will buy and sell in that way, and that’s been removed. So, they’re now paying full capital gains. So somebody maybe buys something for $2m and they sell it for $20m, they’re paying the federal capital gains rate plus the state tax rate as well. It can often add up to 35% to 40% or more as Allan’s pointing out, exactly.

Personally, none of the collectors that we work with have really used the 1031, so it hasn’t affected us. But of course, there are many out there who are and if they’re not buying or selling as much, it’s—

Charlotte Burns: —going to have an effect on trading.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah. And so with that in mind, I think the sales were pretty good and pretty solid. Understandably, there were a lot of third parties because, going in, you really needed to be sure that things were going to sell.

Charlotte Burns: People were not that confident, right.

You can talk a little bit about this, Nick, the idea of building a sale. So when you’re building an auction, you want a really great estate, that’s a sort of coat hook to hang everything else off. The sort of vertebrae of the sale, like last season we had the Rockefeller Estate. Allan, could you talk us through why would you want an estate?

Allan Schwartzman: Well, historically in great collections you have tremendous consistency of taste, certainly supreme access you have a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, you have the Rockefeller name on a work, that provenance is meaningful. Chances are that painting was shown in a lot more situations and that adds to provenance and desire.

Charlotte Burns: It’s a lot more difficult if you’re inside an auction house trying to build a sale and you don’t have an estate. The auction houses, every season, have to build a sale of somewhere between 40 and 70 works, twice a year in New York, twice a year in London, let alone all the other sales centers around the world. It’s actually a huge amount of work to bring things out which are what this particular market wants, which is masterworks.

Most works in the evening sales hammered below their low estimate. So that’s kind of interesting from the point of view of the pricing and the expectations.

Allan Schwartzman: Yeah. Certainly, when you have a greater depth of bidding, it would suggest that you’ve started with a number that has been more enticing to more buyers.

The auction houses have done an increasingly smart and responsible job of not taking in property that they don’t think can sell.

Charlotte Burns: I think as well, there’s a point here about the pricing. It seemed to be the case in all the sales that the houses had read the market quite well in the days and weeks leading up to the sales. They got the works away. Nick was referring at the top of the show to some of the sell-through rates: they’re all fairly high.

Some of the works were going significantly below the low estimate, which suggests that the houses had called up the consigners and said, “Look, we’re going to have to reevaluate our expectations for this work.” They seem to have done a good job of realigning to make sure that the works got away.

But it also speaks to this idea of strategies over the past several sales seasons we’ve seen, Phillips has a different configuration at his helm and they’ve reconfigured their sales accordingly. They’ve gone from being the house that was always showing the super-emerging contemporary artists. Now their sales are Norman Rockwell and contemporary artists. It’s a real mix of 20th and 21st-century.

Sotheby’s has started trying to diversify the idea of “masterpiece” so that you have the $20m+ masterpiece, but then you can have the “best of” at different price points, and bring in artists who the auction markets more typically overlooked.

Christie’s has been more reliant probably on those headline-grabbing multimillion-dollar masterworks or trophies, and… maybe not, Nick, you’re shaking your head.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, I’m not agreeing with everything you’re saying here because actually the day sales at Christie’s yesterday were enormous.

I mean, I refer to the Norman Lewis [at Sotheby’s]. They [Christie’s] probably would have put that in the day sale. [Estimated at] $700,000 to $1m and it made, whatever it was, two and a bit million dollars [$2.78m] and it added a lot of flare to the evening sale by having a work like that because it gets for you journalists standing on the side, wishing the sales is going to be over, it gives a bit of pizzazz to the evening—even though it doesn’t make a massive difference to the overall totals. There’s no doubt having the two Kerry James Marshalls made a big difference. Those did incredibly well.

Yeah, in some ways you could say the Sotheby’s sale was well curated to get atmosphere. It didn’t make as much money as the other. Obviously the Ruscha was a big headliner at Christie’s, but we’ll see what the total of the sales are today.

I think it was a record for Christie’s for the day sales yesterday. I was amazed, particularly at the morning session. It was incredibly active and part of me thought, well maybe they should have moved some of those into the evening sale just to get a little more atmosphere.

Charlotte Burns: Add some life, that’s interesting. The day sales did incredibly well, and we haven’t got to the end of them—when we’re recording this, we don’t know how Sotheby’s is going to do—but Phillips had its highest ever day sale total in the company’s history, $40.2m sold, 85% sold by lot, 88% by value—and it was a 58% increase on the previous sales season. Christie’s had a gangbusters day sale too.

And the interesting thing here is that if the trend for the evening sales was that works were hammering below the low estimate, and in some cases significantly below the low, it was the opposite in the day sales. On average, the majority of the sales were above the low estimate. So, things were doing really well. What does that tell us about the state of the market?

Allan Schwartzman: A question for you, Nick, were you in the room during the day sales at Christie’s?

Nicholas Maclean: No.

Allan Schwartzman: Okay. So, I’m curious as to how much of that was collector buying and how much was trade buying? Because, historically there’s been a lot more trade buying during the day sales.

Nicholas Maclean: What I heard from people who were there, there seemed to be a lot of collector buying. And it was packed. When I was at Christie’s it was the big difference between offering somebody an evening sale—even if it was lot 65 and when everybody gone off for dinner—the perception was that that was better than putting it in the day sale. I’m not so sure now.

They really had some amazing prices. But it goes back to the curating. I mean, for example, the Charles White that opened the sale yesterday [at Sotheby’s], I mean, fantastic work. I can’t imagine that would have been a work that would have considered putting up front in a contemporary sale ten years ago. Now that’s partly market related, but still, it’s an interesting change and it is obviously a curatorial decision and clearly a good one. It did leave us all feeling as we left that sale quite buoyant, thinking the market’s in a good place. But those who were in the day sales yesterday, well, they had the same feeling.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Nicholas Maclean: Particularly the trade. And obviously, lot of trade go to those sales. One dealer I spoke to and he said, “God, I tried to bid on ten things and I didn’t get one.” So that puts him in a good mood and means he’s probably going to be out there buying in the Paris sales. And he’s feeling buoyant about Basel Miami.

Allan Schwartzman: So that also leads to a few other questions for me. Number one, it appears that there is greater depth of interest in the six-figure and low-seven figure level on the part of buyers. And that would explain some of the strength of the day sales. But how much of there being depth of registered bidders or desirous bidders was rooted in, “that’s the right property that I want,” or “that has such a low estimate that I want to take a shot at it”? Because we saw a lot of the latter.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes. In a way we’re contradicting what we were saying earlier, that there’s a big difference to an A plus and A and particularly the sort of regular B-, B+/A- works, which is a majority of the day sale.

I think that because the auctions in May and in June were definitely softer for the mid-level, the specialists in the auction houses were able to really go out there and say, “We need much more conservative estimates.”

And I looked at some of the prices quoted on works that were similar to works that we either own or belong to clients of ours, and we just thought, “Gosh, if they sell at these levels, things are not looking good.” And they ended up actually selling pretty well for the amounts that we might’ve expected a few months ago. So, it felt good because everything had a huge amount of competition. But actually, the reality is, I think the market just probably stayed on a level.

But I mean you see plenty of artists that still suffered, if you break down the sales. It’s still very specific—

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Nicholas Maclean: —what people are chasing. One artist that just jumped out, I noticed that Sturtevant prices seemed to be much more subdued. I think after the MoMA retrospective there was a huge push. And then maybe because there’s a perception that the Pop market had been—

Charlotte Burns: Softer.

Nicholas Maclean: —slightly softer, although I’m not sure. I think that’s feels like a temporary thing.

Allan Schwartzman: But even at the same time there happened to be more choice Sturtevant in this week’s sales than in most week’s sales. Yes. So, it would have been a great opportunity for someone interested in that artist to enter in and actually take a position.

There’s certain things that I can’t explain and to meet Sturtevant is a significant historical artist in a spirit that seems aligned with a lot of what people are responding to today—still greatly undervalued. And yet there’s kind of pause. There seem to be very few markets that that continue to have the same upward trajectory across a three-year period than not.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, I agree.

Allan Schwartzman: Part of what’s interesting is looking at what’s lot one from each of the three sales. Because lot one is usually something that’s newer to market and what the auction house is expecting will get really carried away.

So, if we look at the three sales, I think you see a kind of paradigm for the thinking and the strategizing that distinguishes each of the houses, at least subtly. So, at Phillips you have a painting by Julie Curtiss—who probably wasn’t known to the auction market a year ago—an artist working in a manner which in fact is very relatable to the work of the Chicago Hairy Who

from the 1970s and beyond.

And you have a work selling for far more than her Hairy Who equivalents would be. So that’s just a fascinating phenomenon of the taste, which is usually very selective for the new. And this is an artist who is extremely hot at the moment.

At Christie’s you had a Rashid Johnson of a large scale. An artist for whom there’s great demand but also who has made a lot of work in a very similar vein. I haven’t kept up most recently with his primary market prices, but the price achieved on that seems to me to be probably two to three times what its primary market price would be.

And at Sotheby’s you had the Charles White work, which is an artist who, as Nick points out, would not have appeared in an evening sale until very recently and, my guess, hasn’t appeared in too many day sales. This is an artist for whom there’s been a great amount of singular attention recently. This is a historical artist of color from the United States and it’s a work of particular emotional poignancy.

So, you have works by artists of different generations, different moments of the developments of their markets, and all doing exceptionally well.

Nicholas Maclean: Certainly looking at the Rashid Johnson, obviously that is a tactic that all three auction houses do, which is to start with an artist that many collectors are not able to buy on the primary market and their only opportunity to be able to buy one is to go to auction. And it’s always a great starting point for lots one, two and three.

It’s interesting obviously seeing something like the Charles White because it’s a historical work. The Rashid Johnson is the more tried and tested method. Conservative estimate, as Allan just said—it was always going to fly well past that and creates a good atmosphere going forward.

I mean, it’s quite interesting to look at the Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening Impressionist sales. Each of them started with a Picasso. It couldn’t be more of a safe, conservative start. Traditionally in the past it would be a Boudin or a Fantin-Latour. But of course, tastes have changed and there’s much more of an emphasis on 20th-century painting, and what safer way to start but with the Picasso.

I mean, neither of them flew: one sold on the reserve and the other sold just above.

But the Impressionist and Modern field has become almost commodity-driven, the artists that people want to buy. Whether it’s Picasso, Magritte, Monet, Van Gogh: it’s the big names and it’s many of the big names that Asian buyers know as well. That can affect the construction of the sales, the curating of the sales, which was very different from when I was there.

And there are far fewer estates as well.

Charlotte Burns: So, here’s a question about Imps and Mods. We talk about supply being difficult in contemporary. It’s an entirely different set of difficulties with Impressionist and Modern simply because nobody’s making the work anymore and a lot of it’s in museums and private collections that are unlikely to sell.

So, how long as a category—these are categories that were developed in the 1970s, tastes have changed, supply has changed—do you think that the category can keep going for another generation? Will it at some stage be “Impressionist, Modern and classic Modern”, and then the postwar and contemporary sales might move into something else?

Nicholas Maclean: Well, interestingly, when I was at Christie’s we had this brief moment between I think it was 1998 and 2000 where Impressionists were sold off with the very best of the rest of the 19th-century—the Delacroixs and the Gericaults and the Courbets—up to post-Impressionism. And then the Picasso’s were sold with the Warhols.

Inevitably they became quite lopsided, the sales. We actually then broke off the 19th-century, so it was just Impressionists and post-Impressionists. Then I remember we had a sort of sale which was $100m back in 1999, I think it was. Which was a huge amount of money back then for just that category. You couldn’t hope to do that now. In theory, you could achieve that total—

Charlotte Burns: But a totally different construction.

Nicholas Maclean: —Yeah, exactly. And the idea quickly fell apart because Sotheby’s took market share. People didn’t want to put their Monet in the sale which was with 19th-century stuff. They wanted to be in with the Picassos as well. It lasted two years and we went back to the traditional Impressionist Modern category.

The idea would appear therefore to have been flawed. In some ways it may have just been early and yet you saw at Christie’s sale, I mean there was a huge price for a Pissarro

Charlotte Burns: There was some Renoirs doing well, which—

Nicholas Maclean: Amazingly well. And there was a big price for the Caillebotte on the cover of Sotheby’s. Obviously, there was the Monet—

Charlotte Burns: Charing Cross Bridge (1903).

Nicholas Maclean: Charing Cross Bridge, which was about the right price. Monet is alive and well. The point is as that market continues to do—

Charlotte Burns: Well.

Nicholas Maclean: I hate to make the analogy, he’s the blue-chip artists that essentially all great collectors will look at, but also investors will look at because they know it’s going to keep going up, I’m afraid. So—

Charlotte Burns: But you could also hang Monet next to Joan Mitchell

Nicholas Maclean: Well, late Monet.

Charlotte Burns: Late Monet, yes.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes, of course there’s a taste change. How many people looking to buy a great 1870s Monet? But actually, there are always people for them. I mean most of those are sold privately.

I actually think the Impressionist Modern period is alive and well. You think, well at some point will the Impressionists just be moved to one side? But I think there are enough people still collecting across the board. I think the auction houses are going to be looking and thinking, do we really want to isolate the Impressionists from post-Impressionist the way where they’re going to look, frankly less sexy? As happened back in Christie’s at the end of the 1990s. I think for the foreseeable future they’ll be sold together.

In pure monetary terms, these sales are big sales. If a great Picasso, great Van Gogh comes to market, probably makes more than just about any other artist in the postwar period apart from possibly Warhol or maybe—

Charlotte Burns: —No, demand is still there for the very best. It’s just there’s not that much of the very best available.

Nicholas Maclean: Well what you can’t do, of course, we talked about the Rashid Johnson concept—that you take an artist who’s become very sought after in his primary program. And as I said, if you’ve make the first four or five lots works which some collectors are not able to get hold of and you put them at a conservative estimate, you’re going to automatically create a—

Charlotte Burns: Seduction.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, exactly. And the makeup of the works that can round off a sale, you can always dip, as a contemporary specialist, can dip into young artists to make up the lots.

How do you do that in the Impressionist Modern field? It’s harder to put those sales together, and you just look at the size of the sales. They’re smaller and smaller. But I still feel that we’ve got a while to go before they get re-categorized.

Allan Schwartzman: I have a question in that regard for you. Do you think that putting the Impressionist Modern and contemporary sales in the same week has benefited the sales—

Nicholas Maclean: I think it’s a very good thing. It’s exhausting covering the two—

Charlotte Burns: —They used to be a week apart, for listeners who don’t remember that.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah. I think it’s a very good thing. We certainly see from collectors who come to town, they look at everything. There’s a collector we work with who underbid the Jacob Lawrence. He does collect across the board. But let me put it this way, had that been an American sale, he wouldn’t have seen it. I think context is everything.

We do have other collectors who come here and will look at classic Modern pictures that they might not otherwise have seen.

Charlotte Burns: I was thinking as you were talking about the effect on press. We’re seeing less market reporting in most publications. I mean, I don’t know the answer to this, but I was just kind of wondering as you were talking, the extent to which that’s this sense of sort of ennui, that everybody’s focused just on the multimillion-dollar sales and I wonder to what extent that coincided with that shift of the sales going into one week.

Allan Schwartzman: I would see it very differently. The way I would look at it is that there was never depth of press interest in the art market until we started to see crazy runaway prices. I think that you see a direct correlation between the increase in value of art and the increase of press interest in the market. However, we’re now at a point where we’re seeing fewer stories. I just think that that cycle has kind of played itself out.

Charlotte Burns: So, we’re talking about banner numbers. That’s trophy lots. There were fewer trophy lots this season.

Some of them we’ve mentioned: the Monet Charing Cross (1903), the Ed Ruscha, which set a world record for the artist, the Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964). Hockney was touted as one of those works. There was a Rothko, a de Kooning and a Basquiat at Phillips. Why are we seeing fewer of those works? Are people just more reluctant to sell them?

Allan Schwartzman: Those works are really hard to come by. I think it is principally a function of supply. But also, the numbers—we get inured to them at a certain point.

Nicholas Maclean: It’s the Leonardo effect, once that happened, $450m, hey, what’s $100m? Which is obviously a huge amount of money for anybody to pay for a painting.

Allan Schwartzman: When you get to $450m, what’s the next number? It’s a billion, probably. Is six going to make the difference?

Charlotte Burns: Bloomberg has a great chart where they show the spread of prices, but it’s really difficult to fit a graph into that kind of thumbnail size when you have the outlier of $450m. So, everything else is clustered in this way.

I remember when I first started reporting on the market, anything $10m was like wow, look at that. And now I’m just looking at these numbers in front of me in my notes. Quickly before the podcast, I scribbled down five works that are above $20m in this sort of, “no big potato” in a way. They’re not discussed in that same way; we got price boredom.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, there is a certain amount of ennui, as you say. I mean it still does need somebody to sort of break it down and say, well actually how overall is the Picasso market doing? There was a moment when, in a Sotheby’s London sale—it’s a bit over a year ago—when one collector bought basically… actually it was in Christie’s too, all of the Picassos. It’s pretty misleading for the market. It was essentially one person doing this.

And I approached the agent, like many people did, to see whether there were other Picassos he might want to buy. And they said, “Nope, they’re done.” That was their shopping spree.

That’s interesting to look at the breakdown about what makes an artist market.

Charlotte Burns: I think it’s so specific. The artists that we’ve spoken about today. Charles White is an artist we discussed the first lot of the Sotheby’s sale, also in the evening sale at Christie’s. That was the debut of the evening sale. Charles White came into the market because of Kerry James Marshall, who wrote about Charles White, promoted his work and said, this is an artist that has been overlooked by everyone but was incredibly formative to me.

The market interest and institutional interest around Kerry James Marshall—the artist used that himself to draw attention to an artist that had been so formative for him. And so, institutions followed that too. LACMA just did a big show of Charles White. It was a traveling show. It was at Chicago and LA—

Allan Schwartzman: Just as more on the private market than on the auction market, but just in the same way, that David Hammons’ interest in Ed Clark created a whole new discovery of an artist who’d always been there.

I would say that there were several extremely revealing and interesting stories in these auctions. For example, the very substantial price for the Kerry James Marshall. What was that for the vignette painting?

Charlotte Burns: Let me look that up.

Allan Schwartzman: That was a hammer of over $16m, so it must’ve been around $18m. I remember watching that and thinking, okay, after the Pop generation, there’s one contemporary artist who has brought similar prices and sometimes higher, and that’s Peter Doig. And Peter Doig’s kind of been in a league of his own as far as the market’s concerned.

Charlotte Burns: It was $18.5m.

Allan Schwartzman: Okay, so it’s $18.5m. It was not a large painting, at least of the scale that the artist works. It’s a strong painting. It’s from a somewhat more obscure body of work, although it still has the artist’s characteristic content. That’s an extraordinary price.

That’s really a singular story. It’s a reinforcement at a much higher level of what we’ve seen happen again and again. Every Kerry James Marshall has done well in these sales.

Nicholas Maclean: That’s the biggest story, in a way, that it’s continued. That, in a way, is probably the one of the best things an auction house can do, which is to create context. To put the Charles White in and say, “Well, here’s the reference point for Kerry James Marshall.”

It’s hard for an auction houses to do because, you know, when we’re putting an exhibition together, we pick and choose what we want. We don’t necessarily always get what we want, but usually there’s ways that we can actually formulate it. But with an auction, you kind of have to take what you get. Just because the painting’s offered you that you don’t necessarily like, but you know you can sell it, it goes in.

It may not make any sense with everything else, but that does make sense. And putting it up front was a smart move and actually really made sense with two very good works by Marshall later.

Allan Schwartzman: Yep. Or you have the story of the Ruscha at Christie’s, we know that the market’s been waiting for the right, fantastic work from the early 1960s to come forward. The right work came by at the right time now. It brought an extraordinary price. I don’t think it was surprising what the price was.

Charlotte Burns: $52.5m.

Allan Schwartzman: I’m not confident that that performance carries throughout the Ruscha market, but certainly, even without that, we’ve seen an increase in interest in Ruscha across the board—who had been always a highly respected artist, but with a fairly flat market. That’s an interesting story.

I can think of an even smaller story, but one that’s very telling me in a market that I’m very familiar with, which is the Shiraga.

It’s an extremely beautiful painting. It’s very powerful. It’s from a core Gutai period, and it had a very conservative estimate of $1.8m to $2.5m. There were numerous Shiragas when the American market discovered him and the European market rediscovered him, for paintings of this size, of historical paintings, that were commonly selling for the low-$3m up to, let’s say, the mid-$4m and then one or two sailing above that. This is a painting that sold for $5m, which is exactly the right retail price for it. But there hasn’t been the action in the Shiraga market for the last couple of years and so this to me was a sign that there are enough connoisseurs out there waiting for the right painting, that they rose up and there was actually quite competitive bidding for it.

Nicholas Maclean: It was very interesting just watching the bidding on that lot. I mean it sort of summed up the evening. It was very tensive, a lot of the bidding. It went up in the hundreds on for multimillion-dollar lots. This was really slow, this painting, but it got there, and it was very deep. As Allan says, it’s right, it should be there, because the price on the private market, there’ve been two prices privately over $15m and there will be more to follow.

There was a big price in—I can’t remember whether it was Sotheby’s or Christie’s Paris—for roughly $11m to $12m. It’s not unsurprising to see this. I think this is the first big price for a Shiraga here in New York.

Allan Schwartzman: Of this size.

Nicholas Maclean: Yes.

Allan Schwartzman: The paintings you’re referring to are of the largest size—

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, largest size.

Allan Schwartzman: Which is more than twice the—

Nicholas Maclean: Exactly, but just to see a big price, full stop in a—

Allan Schwartzman: Correct. And by the way, maybe in the last year and a half, there might’ve been questions amongst specialists as to whether a Shiraga should go in a New York evening sale right now given that there is not the same momentum in the private market as there was a few years ago, and yet this was the right painting at the right time.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, I think there is depth though. There’s more depth than one might think. Shiraga is a major artist who is being once again reevaluated, and now is going to another level, and this showed it.

Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you both what’s happening with the Italian postwar market? There was a Fontana slash canvas withdrawn from Christie’s, the Manzoni withdrawn from Sotheby’s. What’s happening with that market?

Allan Schwartzman: I wish I could explain it. It’s a market that I know super well. I’ve placed a lot of it. Italian commitment to the postwar Italian market has always been the core of that market, and maybe that’s less present right at the moment.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me except to say that the rise of the Fontana and Manzoni market over, let’s say the last ten or 15 years, has been driven by seasoned collectors of historical postwar art who were discovering for the first time, at least American collectors discovering for the first time, just how significant and undervalued they had been. These artists do not yet seem to be attracting the attention of a new generation of collectors, who are seeking out the work of other artists.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, I would agree. It’s a very difficult one to explain. There’s no doubt Italians have had the main influence on that market, particularly for Fontana and Manzoni. We probably should take Fontana by himself because he’s it. I hate using that word again, but it was almost like a commodity. You see collectors from all over the worlds thinking, okay, if I buy one of these, this is a safe place to put my money and it’s of standard type.

Charlotte Burns: You could understand the pricing.

Nicholas Maclean: And being taught that there’s a hierarchy in the colors: if I buy a red one and a white one, that’s better than buying, you know, a blue one or a green one. But I have to say, like Allan, I can’t really explain why there’s been this sort of dip because frankly the interest in the artist is way beyond Italy.

Allan Schwartzman: And the significance is undeniable. Fontana, to me, is as significant to postwar European art as Pollock is to postwar American art.

Nicholas Maclean: Well, perhaps we’ve answered the question by saying that actually, because you’ve got speculators in the market and when you’ve got a market, particularly talking about Fontana—which is such a large body of work—that the mid-level quality of work will end up dipping. It’s supply and demand, you know, there’s probably too many works coming on the market and not enough people to buy them who have speculated, whereas a great “Fine di Dio” is probably still going to hold its value.

Allan Schwartzman: I would also say that there was very recently a retrospective in New York at the Metropolitan Museum in the Breuer building. This was a long-anticipated show. We were long in need of a major retrospective in this country. I think the original plans were for the show to be of a much larger scale than it wound up being, and that exhibition did not ignite broad public interest.

I think it was looked upon more as an academic show, and therefore of interest to people already connected to the work. It didn’t open a door.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: Whereas the Burri retrospective, which had been at the Guggenheim, opened a lot of peoples’ eyes to an artist they had not known. It was on a scale where you could see the fullness of this artist and the truly significant and poignant arc of his development, and it happened to have been an extraordinarily well-curated show.

Having said that, too, the Burri market is still a place of great opportunity. There are lots of markets one could identify, the markets of individual artists, that are great opportunities today. In a moment where there are more buyers looking for consensus and corroboration amongst their peers, than looking to be pioneers, we’re not seeing as much appetite for moving in those directions—though one hopes that there could be increased response to such opportunities in the coming years.

With the Italian material it is kind of an island unto itself. We could also look at the Yves Klein that was at Christie’s, which is an extraordinary work. It did extremely well, but I would not have been surprised if three years ago it did much, much better. I think this too is part of that caution.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah. The Burri show, as you said, it was a remarkable show, but I think there’s probably this issue of conservation with Burri that puts off many collectors. They’re certainly more difficult pictures for newcomers to the market to live with.

Charlotte Burns: Really understand.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, to understand.

Klein needs a major retrospective and that’s obviously required for people to understand his importance.

Charlotte Burns: The thing too about the perspectives that’s kind of interesting, you mentioned earlier in the show Elaine Sturtevant, and the retrospective she’d had in the expectation that that would cause the market to raise.

About a year or so ago, we did a kind of analysis of auction sales of artists who’d had major exhibitions. The idea that a major show will lift the market turns out to be correct, if there’s a particular configuration of ingredients that go into that. It has to be a good time of year, in terms of audience: so, you could have a show in Venice in an off-biennale year that’s not going to do anything. If you have a show in Venice in a biennale year, it might change everything. It’s timing and location. It’s whether the curator is a good curator and does a good job and gets the work that they want to put in the show; and whether it tells us something new or whether it reinforces it. So, you can have a great Polke show, but if it just reinforces the fact that Polke is complicated and complex and doesn’t simplify it, that doesn’t help the market understand it much more either, because the market likes that simplicity.

But also, that buyers and the market tends to anticipate that rise. You see the market usually rising in advance. That was the one consistent thing that we could see is that people thought, ooh, there’s a big show coming up, so the prices are going to go up, now’s the time. Then after, you often saw a bit of a drop until things kind of percolated down to groundwater level in a way.

Nicholas Maclean: Yeah, I’d agree. And I think Polke is kind of an interesting example. I thought that the Tate leg of that show was much better laid out than the MoMA leg. It was a very difficult show to read. As you say, he’s a difficult artist, but at the same time, I think it comes down to details like that. Would you agree, Allan?

Allan Schwartzman: I did not see the installation at the Tate. The approach of the retrospective in New York was much more driven by ideas, much more conceptually rooted. There were additions of later paintings, is my understanding, to the Tate showing of it. There was more of an emphasis on painting over a series of decades. That does make for an easier and more seductive story.

There are two needs for the Polke market to lift, because this is truly one of the great postwar artists who is the most “under-understood”, if I can use that phrase, and the one for whom there’s been the greatest imbalance between significance and price and value.

The second issue has to do with the estate. Polke died now over nine years ago, and there’s still uncertainty as to what will happen with the estate. There’s a vast amount of material in the estate, not much at all of the early work, but, starting in 1982, Sigmar became the best collector of Sigmar’s paintings, and he happens to be an artist who made great paintings in every decade of his working. The work has always been interesting and vital.

His whole identity has been as an iconoclastic artist, and an artist who has kept himself moving creatively by always creating exceptions to his previous practice. That’s vexing for a market in the absence of a consistent major primary market gallery that is there to create stability and confidence and understanding.

He remains deeply followed, and passionately, by a certain circle of curators in Europe and in the United States and by a few collectors. But the circles haven’t widened. It is primarily because it’s not easy to understand. The market, as we keep saying, is always looking for the highest price for a signature iconic work. With Polke the exceptions are more common than the rules.

Charlotte Burns: We’re at the end of the show now. We have a few minutes before we’re going to be thrown out of this room, and so I’d like to ask you both what your takeaways were from this auction season. We’re one major market event away from the end of the year, Art Basel Miami Beach, essentially. So, how were we rounding out 2019?

Nicholas Maclean: I think the market is solid. It’s very good for the A-quality works, A+ -quality works. For average quality, they need to be estimated very conservatively and will, accordingly, do fine. But if anything’s overvalued, there’s no takers.

Most collectors are deciding that if they want to put something into auction then they need to have a guarantee. It’s not to say that there are more this season, but I think we could see that, in future sales, that more and more people are relying on that. They don’t want to risk putting the work into auction with the danger that it might not sell.

For me, the market is absolutely fine, but it’s still quite cautious.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah. Allan?

Allan Schwartzman: Yeah, I agree totally. I would add to that that we have become so data-driven, or consensus-driven, that it has created, in general, a cautiousness, and in some cases, a laziness. We have an exhaustion from so many art fairs and auctions and so on, and so there is not the same urgency to transact except when there happens to be a significant amount of most choice work of the sort we usually only see with estates.

But, even despite everything that I say, there were numerous signs that this cautious market does have an appetite for new stories. By introducing new stories at auction, at least when it’s calibrated to a knowledge of a market that’s out there to react to it, that you create curiosity that can open doors and will.

I think there’s becoming that much more of a separation between the publicly-validated and recorded numbers at auction, and what goes on at galleries and through private dealers. To some extent, the private market, which is not published, is suffering in many ways without that data. Yet there are also some record numbers being achieved that we just aren’t familiar with because it’s not published.

Charlotte Burns: Great. Well thank you both very much for being here today, and if anybody wants to know more about the auctions, they should head to our website,, where—by then—we will have written our analysis. Please head there. Thank you very much.

Allan Schwartzman: Thank you, Charlotte.

Nicholas Maclean: Thank you Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you.

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