In recent art world news, one may think that the digital revolution has provided some “much-needed transparency” to the art market with the sale of artwork now being bought online as regularly as books and music.  However, according to last year’s Hiscox Online Art Trade Report (publication of the 2018 edition is forthcoming in April), it is estimated that online platforms accounted for about $3.75 billion of sales in 2016 (up 15% from 2015), which represents just an 8.4 percent share (up from 7.4% in 2015) of the overall art market.

Despite the low overall art market share for online platforms, the art world’s digital sector has seen new developments.  In particular, just last week it was announced that online auction house Paddle8 had merged with Swiss tech company The Native, and would develop an auction that accepts virtual currency (i.e., bitcoin).  Also, last week Sotheby’s announced that it had acquired Thread Genius, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup company specializing in developing identification software by using algorithms to identify objects and suggest images of similar objects.

While the music and publishing industries have been transformed by retailing via an online platform, this has not been the case for the art market, which has been slower to move in such direction.  Some in the art world have made the well taken point that artwork is unique and much more expensive than mass-produced books and music.  A high price tag of six figures and up has the effect of deterring digital impulse purchases.  Indeed, online art sales tend to be dominated by artwork priced below $5,000.

Prices remain a major hurdle for the expansion of the digital art trade, not just because they are often so high, but because of their lack of availability.  Consumers looking to buy, say, a shirt online can browse numerous fashion websites where thousands of items are clearly labeled and priced.  But all too often, prices on art dealers’ websites—and in their galleries and booths at fairs—are ‘on application,’ a process that can be both laborious and forbidding.”

Unsurprisingly, from the perspective of the consumer, dedicated online-only art auctions having transparent price structures benefit from a definite edge over dealer transactions in the digital space.  Since last May, in an effort to aid transparency, Christie’s website has included results from its online-only art auctions, which had an average lot price of $7,305 (up from $6,047 in 2016).  This information is not provided by competitors such as Sotheby’s and Paddle8.

Although results achieved for resold artworks can be accessed via subscription websites such as Artnet and Artprice, the “primary market” prices charged by galleries for new artworks by contemporary artists remain private with “many dealers regarding them as trade secrets available only to insiders.”

A new app started in 2016 named Magnus seeks to disrupt the art market and make it more transparent.  In use, the smartphone user simply aims their device at a particular artwork in a gallery or fair and visual recognition technology rapidly provides auction and dealer prices for the specific artist.  In such way, it is said that Magnus works for art as Shazam, the mainstream song-identifying app, works for music.  The new app’s database stores about 10 million prices, which are compiled through crowdsourcing, and 10 percent of which are from the primary market.  The app is said to be especially strong at art fairs with estimates that it identified around 80 percent of the prices at events such as Art Basel.

It will be interesting to see how the art market engages the next generation of art collectors and buyers.  The recent developments in the digital space described above seem like a solid start.

 

 

In recent art world news, Sotheby’s posted a $23.5 million net loss during the traditionally slow third quarter, up 57 percent from last year, announced by the auction house in its quarterly earnings call last Friday.  The “net loss of $0.45 per share beat expectations that foresaw a $0.67 per share drop, and the revenue total of $171 million was ahead of the anticipated figure of $110.9 million.”

The increase was attributed in part to the inclusion of Hong Kong fall sales in the financial period along with an atypical $7.4 million tax benefit.  Sotheby’s had built a reserve to defend against a potential tax liability and has since reversed the reserve with the one-time liability now past the statute of limitations to challenge.  In effect, this action gave the auction house a one-time cash infusion during this traditionally slow period in the summer months.

Sotheby’s executives were cautiously optimistic in addressing the quarter noting that “both sales in Asia and sales of contemporary art are up from a year ago—at this point last year, both sectors were trending down from the year prior.”  The auction house acknowledged that the while it benefited from the change in timing of the Hong Kong sales in the third quarter, the fourth quarter will be “negatively affected” with the exclusion of the Hong Kong sales.

The third quarter is typically the slowest period of the year as it accounted for less than five percent of the auction house’s total sales last year.  Sotheby’s total consolidated sales, which include auctions, private sales and inventory sales, are up 13 percent nine months into this year.

 

 

In March 2016, a US auction gallery sold an Old Master oil painting (a sketch of an old woman) for $27,000. The sale price was nearly double the high auction estimate of 15,000.  However, when the same painting was recently sold by Sotheby’s London in a July 2017 sale as an authentic Peter Paul Rubens, it achieved a hammer of £416,750 (close to $550,000 USD), which is nearly 20 times the original purchase price.

It has been reported that the appraisers at Sotheby’s London relied on certain clues to authenticate painting and attribute to Peter Paul Rubens himself. For example, Rubens had painted this old lady before, and there were examples of Rubens work with the old women at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lichtenstein museum.  Interestingly, the work was consigned to Sotheby’s after it had been properly cleaned and restored. The restoration work revealed that the sketch had been overpainted, and this overpainting is likely the reason why the work was not properly attributed in the first place.   Importantly, this is not the first time an authentic Rubens was late discovered. In 2015, a portrait deaccessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was later determined to be an authentic Rubens and fetched $626,500 at auction (over 20 times its original high estimate of $30,000).

As the Washington Post reports, authentic Rubens are valuable – even if they are mere sketches and not final oil portraits. Rubens value has increased. For example, last year a Rubens painting, Lot and his Daughters, set a new record for an Old Masters sale fetching £44.8 million ($58.1 million USD).

Unfortunately, the value and popularity of Rubens make his Old Master works a prime target for forgery. This heightened concern can move an appraiser to conservatively attribute paintings to “school/student/studio of” an Old Master rather than the Old Master himself.  This recent Rubens auction sale demonstrates that sometimes the caveat emptor/buyer beware mantra can benefit the buyer in more ways than one. In this case, taking the extra step to invest in restoration and cleaning paid off exponentially for the original auction buyer.

In recent art world news, a prized painting, “La Punta Della Dogana e San Giorgio Maggiore” (1739-40) by the artist Michele Marieschi, has become the focus of a 70-year restitution effort by the Graf family and its heirs that is now being resolved on an ambivalent note.

Back in 1937, Vienna, a couple named Heinrich and Anna Maria Graf purchased a scenic 18th-century oil painting of the Grand Canal in Venice with the Punta Della Dogana in the background.  The Graf family considered the prized painting to be the highlight of their treasured art collection.  The next year, after Austria was annexed by Germany, the Grafs along with their young twin daughters, Erika and Eva, fled the country.  In 1942, by the time the family settled in New York, all the family’s possessions had been looted by the Nazis.

The prized painting will be part of an upcoming old masters auction in July at Sotheby’s in London as a restitution settlement reached between the heirs and a trust on behalf of the now deceased owner.  Sotheby’s has estimated the painting’s value in the range of $650,000 to $905,000.  Though treasured by the Graf family, the painting is not widely considered to be a significant work.

This painful and circuitous history reflects how looted artworks that have been in private hands for decades are coming to market after settlement agreements with the rightful owners, in a way that tries to address their tainted past.  These agreements may not result in the return of the paintings to the heirs, but the compromise does provide at least a form of resolution and some compensation to the heirs, and brings the artworks out of hiding.”

The heirs of the Graf family were not able to have the painting returned to them because the deceased owner and the trust declined to return the artwork.  Instead, an agreement was reached between the parties that includes sharing of the proceeds from the Sotheby’s sale.

The Graf family had been actively searching for the painting since 1946 around the time Heinrich Graf submitted a claim for the work in Austria.  Decades later, in 1998, the two daughters with the assistance of the Art Loss Register, a database of lost and stolen art that also offers search services, posted an ad in The Art Newspaper seeking information on the painting.

In 2013, after the death of the owner of the painting, the artwork fell into a trust.  In 2015, the trust reached out to Art Recovery International, which specializes in the mediation of restitution claims.  It was around this time that negotiations with the Graf heirs began.  The estate of the deceased owner and the Graf family reached the restitution agreement in December.

For further information on this intriguing story, see “After Decades, A ‘Bittersweet’ Resolution Over Lost Art[,]” published online by The New York Times on May 28, 2017.

In recent art news, a vibrant painting of a skull, “Untitled” (1982), by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s last Thursday evening and earned the distinction of becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction.  With last week’s sale, only ten other works have surpassed the $100 million mark.

The buyer of the Basquiat painting was Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who identified himself as the successful bidder through a recent post on his social media account.  In his post, Maezawa said “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece” and added “[w]hen I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art.  I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”

Incidentally, it was Maezawa who set the previous auction high for Basquiat in which he paid $57.3 million for the late artist’s 1982 painting of a horned devil at Christie’s last year.

This latest Basquiat acquisition by Maezawa is intended for a planned museum in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.  Maezawa said in a statement that “[b]ut before then I wish to loan this piece—which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years—to institutions and exhibitions around the world.”

It remains to be seen as to whether one art collector makes a market as it will take another significant Basquiat work to test the sustainability of this $100 million level.

It was reported that Basquiat’s “Untitled” painting set a number of records last Thursday night at Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary auction of which include “for a work by any American artist, for a work by an African-American artist[,] and as the first work created since 1980 to make over $100 million.”

Last year, according to Artprice, Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating over $170 million in sales from 80 works, and the artist’s auction high has increased an impressive tenfold in the last 15 years.

Sotheby’s auction last week fetched a total of $319 million against a low estimate of $211 million with 96 percent of the 50 lots sold in which 60 percent of the lots reached prices above their estimates.  Contributing to its success, Sotheby’s had a number of works in the “middle range around $5 million to $10 million” that were attractive to the market.

 

In an art market that has been defined by the uncertainty of world events and declining inventory, it was reported earlier today that Sotheby’s announced fourth quarter earnings of $65.5 million, which is an increase over that same period in the prior year.  The auction house had a loss of $11.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2015.  Sotheby’s adjusted net income for 2016 was $99.6 million, which is down from $143.1 million in 2015.

Sotheby’s has been working to counter this softening in the art market by diversifying its business.  In particular, Sotheby’s recently acquired art authentication firm, Orion Analytical, in addition to acquiring Amy Cappellazzo’s art advisory business last year.  The auction house further acquired Moses Art Indices, which monitor the auction business, and hired Christy MacLear, the chief executive officer of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, in an effort to expand its advisory services for both living artists and artists’ estates and foundations.

Further, although there is a widespread reluctance on the part of auction houses to give away profits through guarantees, Sotheby’s president and chief executive officer, Tad Smith, indicated earlier today that the auction house would use such guarantees when necessary.  With the expertise of Sotheby’s team, Mr. Smith affirmed that “we can confidently offer a guarantee to the seller and hedge it on the other side.  Used prudently, guarantees are good for consignors, collectors, the market overall, and investors.”

It will be interesting to see whether the other auction houses will follow suit in using such guarantees in future art auction sales this year.

In recent art world news, a painting recently sold by Sotheby’s for £8.4 million ($10.6 million) has been determined a fake causing concern that more high value forgeries exist in the art market.  In 2011, an anonymous buyer from the United States purchased the painting by Dutch artist Frans Hals.  Sotheby’s took back the painting after it was discovered by the auction house that the work was connected to another alleged fake.

The scandal dates back to this past March when French officials seized a 1531 painting entitled “Venus” by German artist Lucas Cranach at an exhibition in France.  That work sold for £6 million in London, but is being analyzed at the Louvre and is believed to be a fake.

An in-depth technical analysis established that the Hals painting was indeed a forgery.  Sotheby’s experts used pigmentation tests to determine that the work was “undoubtedly” a fake.  Thereafter, Sotheby’s rescinded the sale and reimbursed the client in full for the purchase of the fake work.

Concerns currently exist throughout the art market that there are up to 25 other fakes in it.  This could cost art investors a staggering £200 million.

 

News media reports that 2016 may be a challenging year for the art world.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the two largest international auction houses, recently released their 2015 results.  Each auction house reported a decrease in year-over-year sales with 2015 the first year since 2010 in which Christie’s and Sotheby’s were unable to yield an increase.

London-based Christie’s reported auctions and private sales of about $6.8 billion in 2015 (down by about five percent from 2014) while New York-based Sotheby’s reported nearly equivalent sales of about $6.6 billion in 2015 (down by about one percent from 2014).

While the above figures do not signal a “burst bubble”, they do hint that this year is going to be a challenging one for the art world and reflect the volatility going on throughout the world.

In particular, cautious owners have become increasingly hesitant to sell their high-value works in a downturn.  This is evidenced by Christie’s and Sotheby’s upcoming London auctions this month of Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary Art, which are smaller with lower estimates than same such events at this time last year.

As investment-conscious buyers become anxious about spending significant amounts of money on art works by less established artists, the so-called new category of “20th-century art” now appears to dominate the art market.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s both used this new category to promote their respective February auctions.

It appears that “rediscovered” instead of “discovered” talent in the art world is going to be “a recurring theme of a bearish 2016.”  Only time will tell.

 

 

As recently reported by Artnet, there has been quite a bit of speculation surrounding the buyer’s identity of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s painting entitled Portrait of Gertrud Loew-Felsövanyi (1902) sold at Sotheby’s London back in June for $39 million.  Recent credible reports confirm that the buyer is British billionaire businessman Joe Lewis, who came into his fortune by way of foreign exchange market (forex) trading in the early 1990s.  Lewis’ art collection is estimated to be worth around $1 billion and includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, sculptor Henry Moore, and, of course, Klimt.  Lewis is known to have a preference for Austrian modernism.

According to Artnet, the provenance of the Nazi-looted Klimt painting was determined just recently before the Sotheby’s London auction in which the painting was returned to the subject’s granddaughter.  Shortly thereafter, it was decided by the Felsövanyi family along with the Klimt Foundation to consign the artwork to Sotheby’s and share the profits.

The recent sale of the Klimt artwork has reignited a long debate back in Austria as critics of current restitution practices expressed their concern that “restituted masterpieces all too often disappear from public view as they go to private hands.”  Artnet notes that because public institutions are unable to raise the necessary funds to acquire expensive important artworks, these masterpieces often tend to find their way into either freeports or the art collections of the very affluent.

The painting will be on loan to the Neue Galerie in New York for an exhibition scheduled for next year entitled Women of Vienna’s Golden Age 1900-1918, which will run from September 2016 to January 2017.  The Neue Galerie is a museum dedicated to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design.

Although the Klimt painting will be on display for a short time in New York later next year, the Austrian media predicts that the chances of it becoming permanently publicly accessible are “slim.”

Spring art auction season has arrived in New York this month.  Earlier this week a Vincent van Gogh painting from 1888 entitled “L’Allée des Alyscamps” was sold to a private collector from Asia for $66.3 million as reported by the Los Angeles Times.  While the sale of van Gogh’s painting depicting an outdoor scene with people and trees surpassed Sotheby’s estimate of more than $40 million, it did not break the auction record for a van Gogh painting, which was set back in 1990 when the Dutch artist’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” fetched $82.5 million.

Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist and Modern Art earlier this week generated a total of $368.3 million in successful bids.

This spring’s art auction season in New York will highlight some other highly coveted works, such as Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture entitled “L’Homme au doigt” (Pointing Man), which will be up for auction at Christie’s on Monday.  The iconic sculpture is estimated to sell for around $130 million.