Art Market Past and Present –

Art Market Past and Present –

albert-oehlen3If you believe that art auction results are the be all and end all of the art market and that art auction results tell the full story of the evolution of art prices then you should probably reconsider your point of view. What art auction results do reflect is an extremely narrow view of how art market participants are reacting to the various influences that affect what price people are willing to pay for a work of art at a very specific moment in time. Looking at the sale history of an artwork over a period of one or two years or for that matter even five years may not give enough information to be able to truly appreciate how the value of that artwork has evolved.

It is difficult to make sense of what is happening when so many different points of view are being expressed by various experts and the media but when one puts things into perspective the figures speak for themselves. As an example of what I am talking about I will use the recent sale of the work “Untitled” (1992) by Albert Oehlen at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day auction on the 12th of November (2008). The estimate for this work was USD $250,000 – $300,000 however it sold for $200,000 (hammer price) which doesn’t appear to be a particularly good result but the full story of this work paints a different picture. First of all, lets look at the sale history of similar works. In June 2002 another “Untitled” work painting in 1989 by Oehlen of a similar size sold for USD $17,322 (hammer price) with several other similar works selling for around the same price. To put this into perspective, if someone had purchased “Untitled” (1992) at auction in 2001 for USD $17,322 (hammer price) and then sold the work for USD $200,000 (hammer price) at the November 12 2008 auction that person would have received an increase of around 860% (taking fees into consideration) on their initial investment which, regardless of the fact that the work sold for $50,000 under the estimate at Sotheby’s on November 12, is an extremely good return. The purpose of this example is to show that the performance of a work of art cannot be determined from one auction results but needs to be assessed using data from a period of at least 10 years.

Another work by Oehlen, “Untitled” (1990), was also sold at the same sale as the above mentioned “Untitled” (1992) but with an estimate of USD $200,000 – $300,000 which was a $50,000 wider estimate than the USD $250,000 – $300,000 estimate for “Untitled” (1990). Although they both sold for the same price and had the same upper estimate the different lower estimate resulted in the sale of one work looking better than the other work. The perceived performance of these works of art have been manipulated by the auction house which once again shows how important it is to look at the big picture. The wider estimate of “Untitled” (1990) may reflect nothing more than the auction house having difficulty determining what the estimate should be and may not have been done to purposely affect people’s perception of the work but never the less the actions of the auction house did in this instance have the potential to alter the way people viewed the sale results and, consequently, the value of the works.

Am I optimistic about the future of the art market? Yes I am, because there are plenty of signs that people have confidence in the art market and have not lost their nerve. One such sign is the strong results being achieved for contemporary art which has been particularly evident with the November auctions as seen in the table below. The table from shows the most successful lots from the November 14 Phillips De Pury Contemporary Art Part II auction. It is important to note that the prices in the table are exceptional and are not representative of the whole market for contemporary art but what they do show is that there is still plenty of confidence in the work of contemporary artists. There has definitely been a reduction in the average price people are willing to pay for many contemporary works but that doesn’t mean that the prices being paid aren’t still good in the overall scheme of things as I have shown in the earlier example of the Albert Oehlen works. The relatively strong market for top works of contemporary art reflects the continued confidence in the work of contemporary artists whose work would usually be expected to be the most seriously affected because of the higher risk involved in purchasing such works. Regardless of what people were paying for works of contemporary art six months ago the prices being paid in this first phase of the art market correction represent an art market that is exceeding expectations on many levels and is still showing strength and resilience in a time of financial distress and uncertainty.

Best performers from November 14 Phillips De Pury Contemporary Art Part II auction:

1 Jin Meyerson Lot: 456 $40,000 – $60,000 $200,000 3.33 times high estimate
2 Steven Charles Lot: 243 $8,000 – $12,000 $32,000 2.67 times high estimate
3 Jack Goldstein Lot: 329 $35,000 – $45,000 $90,000 2.00 times high estimate
4 Eric Freeman Lot: 449 $7,000 – $9,000 $16,000 1.78 times high estimate
5 Beatriz Milhazes Lot: 105 $150,000 – $200,000 $310,000 1.55 times high estimate
6 Yayoi Kusama Lot: 260 $12,000 – $18,000 $26,000 1.44 times high estimate
7 George Baselitz Lot: 346 $15,000 – $20,000 $28,000 1.40 times high estimate
8 Nasser Azam Lot: 120 $150,000 – $200,000 $275,000 1.38 times high estimate

Albert Oehlen
78 3/4 by 78 3/4 in. 200 by 200 cm.
oil on canvas
Estimate: $250,000 – $350,000
Winning bid: $200,000

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for all the current analysis. I am glad to see someone trying to make sense of the current market.


  2. The art markets will always be strong along as people believe they are. If people bought more art, whether it’s at an auction or in their local markets, then art will become it’s own profit center.

  3. Thank you for the great insight. It’s nice that not everyone is buying into the doom and gloom.

  4. thanks for the comment Swanke Gallery, much appreciated. I really think that the art market doom and gloom being spread around is conveying a false impression of the health of the art market. Hopefully my small contribution is having some effect on people’s impression of the current state of the art market. That’s my intention anyway.


  5. HI Mari-Lyn,

    Thanks for the comment, I totally agree with what you have said. I also think that people need to stop putting so much emphasis on auction results and start taking a much longer and wider view of the market


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