The Art Auction House Sin Files –

The Art Auction House Sin Files –

Where does it all end? When will people realise that although the questionable practices exhibited by some auction houses are legal, they should not be tolerated? How far will art auction houses be able to go before someone steps in and says ENOUGH IS ENOUGH !! Let’s take a look at the history of sins committed, and those allegedly committed, by the big three art auction houses.

The most famous art auction house scandal took place in 2000 when Christie’s and Sotheby’s were dragged through the mud because of allegations that they had formed a “cartel” and were agreeing in advance to fix commission rates. The price-fixing scheme violated federal antitrust law by eliminating competitive choice and cost customers millions of dollars. Christie’s dobbed on Sotheby’s and were given immunity from prosecution for their information. Sotheby’s ended up taking most of the flak with several senior members getting the boot and two senior managers, A. Alfred Taubman and Dede Brooks, both getting jail sentences. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and their owners also paid a civil lawsuit settlement of $512 million.

In September of 2004, Forbes magazine reported that Christie’s were allegedly withholding information regarding the authenticity of objects from clients. These allegations were made by Canadian newspaper heiress Taylor Lynne Thomson who went on to sue Christie’s. According to Forbes magazine: “Thomson sued and British courts ruled in May that Christie’s had been too lax in its catalog description, leaving out qualifications to its classification of the urns as being “Louis XV.” The judge highlighted the auction specialists’ decision to remove the qualifying words “possibly Italian,” which would’ve raised the possibility of the urns being far less valuable 19th-century copies.”

Christie’s controversial purchase of the highly regarded gallery Haunch of Venison in 2007 caused a flurry of opinions, many of called the sale a conflict of interest and accused Christie’s of blurring the lines between what galleries and auction houses offer. Christie’s wasn’t the first auction house to purchase a gallery though as Sothebys also made a foray into the gallery world by purchasing Noortman Master Paintings in 2006.

In 2008, CNet founder Halsey Minor sued Sotheby’s for allegedly failing to fully declare when they had an ownership stake in works that they were selling. Sotheby’s won the case and were awarded $6.64 million in outstanding debts. Minor can appeal but, as far as I know, has yet to do so.

In February of this year Christie’s allegedly settled with a brother and sister who sued Christie’s for allegedly failing to identify a painting that they consigned to the auction house as being by Titian. The painting was sold for £8,000 by Christie’s in 1993 as a painting ‘from the school of Titian’. It was determined after the painting had been sold by Christie’s that it was in fact a genuine Titian which was worth in the region of 4 million pounds. The siblings claimed that Christie’s failed to competently research and advise on the painting’s value when it was sold in 1993.

In May of this year (2010), Jeanne Marchig, a Swiss animal philanthropist, launched a law suit against Christie’s for failing to identify a painting owned by Marchig, which was sold by Christie’s for $19,500 in 1998, as a painting by Leonardo worth upwards of 100 million pounds. Christie’s sold the painting as a mere ‘19th century German’ work for which Marchig is suing Christie’s for ‘wilful refusal and failure to investigate the plaintiff’s believed attribution, to comply with its fiduciary obligations, negligence, breach of warrant to attribute the drawing correctly, and making false statements in connection with the auction and sale’. Christie’s disagrees with the claims that the painting is a Leonardo. Reaching an outcome with this case is likely to take quite a while.

The most recent art auction scandal involves auction house Phillips de Pury and their ‘Carte Blanche’ sale which took place on November the 8th (2010). So many issues have been raised in relation to this auction that it would take a series of posts to explain them all so I will only mention the most serious allegations. To begin with, the so called “curator” of the auction, Philippe Ségalot, not only was directly responsible for negotiating and organising the consignment of works for the sale, but he also advised some of the buyers – a situation that could be seen as a serious conflict of interest. If this wasn’t enough of a conflict of interest, Segalot is reported to have bid on works himself presumably on behalf of his clients. There have also been several reports that the auctioneer on the night, Simon de Pury, failed to make it clear to the audience when works failed to sell, which auctioneers are legally required to do. By failing to announce the failure of a work to sell the auctioneer could be seen to be attempting to deceive the audience by inducing a false sense of success and excitement.

These are only a few of the more serious scandals that have arisen as a result of some questionable tactics and practices adopted by the world’s top art auction houses. Are these the sort of businesses that you want to business with? Would you trust such a company to treat you fairly and honestly? I have made it my mission to make art collectors and investors more aware of what is happening in the art auction world and hopefully at the same time encourage the art auction houses to be more honest, ethical and transparent. Stay tuned, there is more to come………

**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

Are Art Auction Houses Mocking Art Buyers? –

Are Art Auction Houses Mocking Art Buyers? –

A couple of posts ago I said that I have great respect for art auction houses – well, after the events of the last few weeks that respect is rapidly declining. If you have read my last few posts on contemporary art auctions then you will know that I have issues with the way some auction houses conduct their business. Unfortunately, over the last few days it has come to my attention that the problems that I identified are only the tip of the iceberg. Not only does there seem to be the potential for art auction buyers to be influenced by incorrectly categorised and catalogued works, but apparently some auction houses now appear to conducting auctions in a manner that suggests that art buyers are unable to make decisions for themselves when buying at auction, and need to be told what they should be buying. There are two recent events that have lead me to this opinion the first being the Phillips De Pury “Carte Blanche” auction, and the second being the recent Sotheby’s November contemporary art auction.  Before I begin I want to state that the following is purely my opinion and not in any way a statement of fact.

A comment by Alex Rotter, head of the Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby’s in New York, was the first indication I received that the extent to which auction houses are influencing what buyers purchase may have increased recently. Yes, auction houses have been influencing what art buyers purchase for many years, and as businesses are more than entitled to do so, but it seems that they have begun to exert an even stronger influence of late with the seemingly blatant tactics that have caused me to write this post. According to Rotter, commenting on the Sotheby’s November contemporary art auction, “The success of tonight’s sale was the result of editing – getting the right young, Pop and Abstract Expressionist material into the sale”. So, is this an indication that auction houses are doing something that I am sure many suspect they have been doing for some time – deliberately orchestrating sales to encourage potential buyers to pay more for works than they should, or purchase works that they didn’t originally intend to buy? Is Rotter suggesting that by including a certain array of works, and arranging the catalogue in a particular way, that the auction houses are able to influence buying behaviour? Or, is he suggesting that the contemporary art sales are so carefully planned to ensure that the auction consists of works that they know they have buyers for, that they auction house can guarantee themselves a successful sale before the sale has taken place? Or is the meaning of this comment something else entirely? I will leave the answers to these questions up to you for the mean time. Food for thought though……

Now for the “Carte Blanche” sale. Having a themed auction that allows buyers who are looking for something very specific to be offered a range of related objects is something that I have no problem with; Phillips often hold themed sales such as their music themed sales. I do, however, have issues with a blatant marketing tactic being masked as a cultural and curatorial exercise, which appears to be what has taken place with the Phillips De Pury “Carte Blanche” sale. Philippe Segalot, the so called “curator” of the sale, is quoted as saying in a Phillips De Pury press release that:

“I have always been interested in the concept of curated sales, where the artworks are selected not for their market value but for their artistic quality, historical importance and coherence within the group. Here, I tried to push this idea further by bringing together a small “collection” comprised of my favourite works by my favorite artists. The result is a true self-portrait, a close representation of my life as an art lover, an art collector and an art advisor.”

To begin with, I have a problem with the notion that such a wide range of Segalot’s favourite works from his favourite artists just happened to be available for sale at the right time. AmI really to believe that the owners of Segalot’s favourite works of art were for some reason willing to sell those works just because he asked nicely? Phillips De Pury mentioned in the same press release that I got the above quote from that “He (referring to Segalot) has developed the Carte Blanche sale with the same focus and attention to quality that a private collector would develop their own collection”. So, Segalot spent 50 years putting this sale together did he? Secondly, I have a problem with Segalot suggesting that the mechanics of the sale were not financially motivated – I mean why else would an auction house hold such a sale? It is not as though the sale had any art historical or cultural significance, yet Segalot seems to be suggesting that it does. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I have a huge issue with Phillips De Pury suggesting, in my opinion, that buyers need someone like Segalot to tell them what they should be buying. Because the auction houses seem to be making such an effort to dictate buying trends, there is a huge risk of the works associated with these trends dropping in value significantly when the auction houses move onto promoting the next profitable trend. I believe that the more the decision of what to purchase is taken out of the hands of the collectors and investors, the less stable and sustainable the art market becomes. The reasoning behind this philosophy is that collectors (and even investors) create and strengthen long term trends whereas the market is interested in making as much money from whatever trend seems most profitable at the current time.

The reason that I have such a problem with the developing and strengthening trend of auction houses dictating what art people should be buying, and encouraging buyers to pay more than they should be paying for works of art, is that some time in the future the buyers who fell for this ploy will likely find out that they paid too much. What Phillips De Pury seem to be inferring with their “Carte Blanche” sale is that the works included in the sale somehow become more valuable or desirable because they were chosen by a well known and respected art world figure. And, judging by the success of the sale, plenty of buyers fell for the ploy. I just hope these buyers don’t expect to be able to recoup what they spent anytime soon.

There are even more issues with the “Carte Blanche” sale than the ones I have outlined, but those will have to wait for another post.

Disclaimer: Auction houses are well within their rights to conduct their business in the ways that I have discussed above.  I do not claim to have any proof that the auction houses are doing anything wrong, but am merely raising questions in the hope that they encourage discussion and dialogue.  The above post is purely my opinion and is in no way a statement of fact.

**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

The Rise of Victorian Paintings Pt. 5 –

The Rise of Victorian Paintings Pt. 5 –

JAMES COLLINSON 1825-1881 THE WRITING LESSON 50,000—70,000 GBP Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 79,250 GBP

Prior to the Scott Sale, Grant Ford, Senior Director and Head of Victorian Art at Sotheby’s,made the comment that: “Sotheby’s is delighted to be bringing this extraordinary collection to the market. Victorian narrative works are the cornerstone of the collection and not in all my time at Sotheby’s – a period of 22 years – has a collection of this quality come on to the auction market. The Scotts were collectors in the truest sense; they had an individual and discerning taste and they only ever bought paintings that they truly loved and understood and which said something special to them. We look forward to exhibiting this wonderful collection around the world and are sure that the single-owner sale in November will be a real highlight of the Autumn sales calendar.”

Even though the odds were heavily stacked against Sotheby’s, the sale of the Scott collection was a major success for the auction house, and a huge victory for the market for Victorian art. A total of 87.6% of the lots sold for a grand total of £4,620,071 against an estimate of £4.1-6.2 million brining the sold by value percentage to 77.6%. Most impressively, a total of at least fourteen new artist auction records were established the most impressive of which was achieved for Sophie Anderson whose ‘No Walk Today’ fetched just over £1 million against an estimate of £600,000-800,000. New auction records were also set for William Dyce, John Calcott Horsley, William Somerville Shanks and Thomas Sword Good among others. A total of 280 bidders took part in the sale many of whom were European collectors and investors which is unusual for a genre that would usually only attract British collectors. Considering the importance of the collection and the provenance of the paintings, however, it is not that surprising that many of the works were purchased by Europeans.

After the sale Ford is quoted as having said Commenting on the sale, Grant Ford, Senior Director and Head of Victorian Art at Sotheby’s, said: “This historic collection has attracted an enormous amount of attention from collectors all over the world but especially from our established clients in the UK. As many of the paintings had not been seen in public for several decades and were in a wonderfully fresh condition, a great deal of excitement was generated. We haven’t seen the galleries and saleroom – here in London particularly – as full and busy for a Victorian picture sale in many years. We are absolutely delighted with the new world record price for Sophie Anderson, which fully establishes No Walk Today as one of the most important childhood subjects of its time, and we’re also thrilled and heartened by the many other world record prices achieved. Today’s results are a testament to the discerning eye of two individuals who were collectors in the very truest sense.”

To be continued……..

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

**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

Going Crazy for Works on Paper –

Going Crazy for Works on Paper –

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Tête de femme signed and dated '30 Mars 43 Picasso' (lower right) gouache and wash on paper 25 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (65.7 x 50.4 cm.) Executed on 30 March 1943

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Tête de femme signed and dated '30 Mars 43 Picasso' (lower right) gouache and wash on paper 25 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (65.7 x 50.4 cm.) Executed on 30 March 1943

During the major art auctions that have taken place over the last few months in London and New York there has been a particularly noticeable demand for original works on paper. In particular, original works on paper by the most popular modern artists such as Picasso, Calder, Chagall etc. have been particularly popular with prices at auction routinely exceeding the top estimate thanks to highly competitive bidding. Because works on paper are usually the domain of the connoisseurs who have a stronger appreciation for the non-visual aspects, it is unusual for works on paper to be so strongly fought over. However, as the supply of works available for sale by the most famous modern artists continues to dry up, the demand for works by the big names has created a situation where even the works that are usually considered to be far less desirable are being snapped up with unprecedented urgency.

The most fought over pieces have been those with imagery similar to that which is typical of major works from the artists oeuvre, and that have the appearance of finished original works of art as opposed to studies or cartoons (even if they are). It is the larger scale coloured works that give the strongest impression of being original and finished works of art and, as such, are the most sought after. The price of works on paper, by the some of the most desirable big names such as Alexander Calder, have been creeping up in price for some time now as supply of works by such artists becomes inevitably smaller as time progresses. Even though owners of valuable works of art are sitting on their artistic assets while the art market finds its feet thus reducing the supply of works on the market, the level of demand for what is available is way above what most people expected. With demand out-stripping supply to the extent that we are currently seeing one can only conclude that there the market for art is still strong and there is plenty of money available to be spent.

To give you some idea of the sort of demand we are seeing for works on paper here are some recent auction results:

Sale Information:

Sale 2168
post-war and contemporary art morning sale
14 May 2009
New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Lot Description:

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Spirally Lady
signed and dated ‘Calder ’44’ (lower right)
ink and gouache on paper
30¾ x 22½ in. (78.1 x 57.1 cm.)
Painted in 1944.

Estimate: $30,000 – $40,000
Price Realised: $188,500 (including premium)

Sale Information:

Sale 7736
impressionist/modern works on paper
24 June 2009
London, King Street

Lot Description:

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Tête de femme
signed and dated ’30 Mars 43 Picasso’ (lower right)
gouache and wash on paper
25 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (65.7 x 50.4 cm.)
Executed on 30 March 1943

Estimate: £110,000 – £150,000
Price Realised: £313,250 (Including Premium)

Lot Description:

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Mädchenakt am Ofen
signed ‘E L Kirchner 12’ (lower right); with the Nachlass stamp numbered ‘A Be/Bg 1’ (on the reverse)
watercolour and black chalk on paper
14 7/8 x 17¾ in. (37.8 x 45.2 cm.)
Executed in 1914

Price Realized: £181,250 (Including Premium)
Estimate: £40,000 – £60,000

**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.



For those of you who missed seeing the new documentary on the art market by Ben Lewis titled THE GREAT CONTEMPORARY ART BUBBLE, you can catch it again on Monday the 25th of May at 01:10 on BBC four or download it here:

ben lewis

Ben Lewis’s new documentary
An investigation into the rise and fall of the contemporary art market
Documentary; 60 min

Stop press:

· Prices for top contemporary artists fall 50% by May 2009!

· Sotheby’s given “junk” credit rating by S&P May 5th 2009

· London contemporary art auction sales down 75% in February 2008

· Art market awaits anxiously the Contemporary Art Auctions in New York May 13-14th 2009

· Hirst market near collapse. Art by Hirst fails to sell at Sotheby’s Doha auction, March 2009; no Hirsts in Sotheby’s NY sales.
The contemporary art boom is now over, but between 2003 and Autumn 2008 the world witnessed a craze for collecting contemporary art unprecedented in history
During the last frenzied year of this tulip-style bubble, art critic and film-maker Ben Lewis followed the contemporary art market, travelling to art fairs, auctions, museums, and the offices and homes of billionaire art collectors,, interviewing dealers, auctioneers, gallery-owners, art market analysts and art collectors, trying to find out the reasons behind this historic phenomenon. He uncovered a world of complicated deals, unusual market practices, widespread secrecy as well as passionate enthusiasm for contemporary art.

On September 15th 2008, the day of the collapse of Lehmans, the worst financial news since 1929, Damien Hirst sold over £70 million of his art, in an auction at Sotheby’s that would total £111 million over two days. It was the peak of the contemporary art bubble – the greatest rise in the financial value of art in the history of the world.
One art critic and film-maker was banned by Sotheby’s and Hirst from attending this historic auction: Ben Lewis.

Why? He had spent a year making a documentary investigating the reasons behind the booming contemporary art market, and they claimed he was “biased” against them and contemporary art.

During the easy-credit boom years, there were bubbles in many assets – property, wine, copper, oil. But there was one bubble that was bigger than all the rest: contemporary art. An Andy Warhol sold for $72 million, a Rothko for $73 million, and a Francis Bacon for $86 million. While the rest of the economy began to falter under the Credit Crunch in late 2007, the contemporary art bubble kept on inflating, bigger and fatter than ever before.

Art critic and film-maker Ben Lewis spent all of 2008 investigating this contemporary art bubble. Everywhere he went, the art world told him that the contemporary art boom would go on forever, fuelled by a new passion from the world’s super-rich. But Lewis found other big reasons for the contemporary art boom – a world of unusual market practices, speculation, secrecy and tax breaks that involved the whole art world – dealers, collectors, galleries, auction houses and even public museums.

In the climax of the film, Lewis’ discoveries lead him to play his own part in the bursting of the contemporary art bubble, which is revealed for the first time in this film
Finally the moment came that he had long predicted. A month after the Hirst auction at Sotheby’s, the contemporary art market crashed, dropping by 40% in November 2008 and 75% by February 2009, and still falling today.

The Great Contemporary Art Bubble is not only a film about the art market it is a parable for the mania, delusion and greed which drove the world economy over the edge in 2008. In future years the contemporary art bubble may come to be seen as the epitome of the boom-times we have been living through.

Watch ‘The Great Contemporary Art Bubble’ and discover the reasons behind the biggest, bubbliest bubble of them all!

**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.

Evaluating Art Auction Results Pt. 2 –

Evaluating Art Auction Results Pt. 2 –

auctionIn Evaluating Art Auction Results Pt. 1 (see here) I began to take an in depth look at how people interpret auction results and exactly what it is that determines whether an art auction has been a success or not. Continuing on from that post I want to take a closer look at the different statistics that are used to determine whether an art auction has been a success or not and exactly what each of those statistics can tell us. I will conduct this analysis over several posts as the whole subject of art auction statistics is rather more complex and complicated than it would appear to be.

1. Percentage of lots sold by number:

The total number of works sold compared to the total number of works offered for sale is a widely used statistic that can be useful when analysing an auction but only when compared with statistics from similar auctions or, when the difference between the two auctions being compared is taken into account. By a similar auction I mean an auction that has a similar number of lots, the same type of art, estimates of a similar range and works of a similar price range. Just looking at the sold by lot percentage of a single auction doesn’t really tell us much about how successful an auction was because there are a number of factors that are able to be manipulated by an auction house to alter the chances of selling a higher percentage of offered lots.  There are also other statistics that can result in two auctions with the same sold by lot percentage having different levels of success (or failure). As an example of the problems related to the use of the sold by lot percentage as a sole indicator of an auction’s success, if someone were to reach a conclusion that an auction which took place that had the following statistics (auction 1) was a huge success because of the high percentage of lots sold:

Statistics for auction 1 (2009)

Number of lots: 20
Sold by lot: 80%
Sold by value: 80%
Total value: $20,000,000

but this person had failed to look at the statistics for the same sale by the same auctioneer for the previous year (auction 2) which had the following statistics:

Statistics for auction 2 (2008)

Number of lots: 80
Sold by lot: 80%
Sold by value: 80%
Total value: $120,000,000

the person’s conclusion that auction one was a huge success would be questionable to say the least because although the percentage of lots sold is the same for both sales the previous year’s sale had a higher total and a higher average sale price. The significance of this is that an auction house is a business that has to make a certain amount of profit to continue operating and achieve a certain level of financial success to retain people’s confidence in the business. The auction house would have made more profit from the previous year’s sale even though the sold by lot rates were the same which means that from the auction houses point of view, the previous year’s sale would have been more successful because it made them more money.

By reducing the number of total lots being sold at an auction, reducing the estimates and limiting the works that are included in the auction to those that are most likely to sell, an auction house can reduce the likelihood of a low sold by lot percentage. This is exactly what has happened with the auctions that have taken place so far in 2009 as auction houses attempt to keep up appearances in a much more conservative and challenging market. So far this year there have been several sales that have achieved very good sold by lot percentages as a result of changes made by the auction houses to their auctions which I will discuss in more detail as this series of posts progresses.

The fact that it is virtually impossible to analyse one of the statistics without referring to another statistic suggests that there is an important relationship between the various different art auction statistics. Each of the different statistics can tell us something different about an auction but only when each of those statistics are analysed together and the results of that analysis viewed in the wide context of past results with the current market conditions taken into consideration.

There is no doubt that achieving a high sold by lot percentage is a positive achievement regardless of whether or not an auction house has altered a sale to increase the chances of better figures and regardless of whether the results from a comparable sale are better overall. It is important, however, to recognise that a high sold by lot percentage doesn’t necessarily mean that an auction was a massive success.  As I have shown above, art auction results are not as simple or as clear-cut as they may appear.

to be continued……

**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.