Art Market Appears on Strong, if Cautious, Footing After London Sales
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Art Market Appears on Strong, if Cautious, Footing After London Sales

By ABBY SCHULTZ
Fri, Mar 3, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 4 min

Major auctions in London this week are proving the art market is in solid health at the start of 2023, yet high interest rates and inflation in addition to the war in Ukraine continue to keep enthusiasm in check.

Overall, more than 90% of the lots were sold at combined evening sales of modern, contemporary, and ultra-contemporary work at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, while Phillips evening sale was 100% sold. Those are unquestionably good results.

But there are signs throughout the market that consignors and collectors are holding back a bit, says Drew Watson, head of art services at Bank of America Private Bank.

“The sales were fairly solid, but there was kind of a lack of major headliners,” Watson says. “We’re seeing some increased conservatism among the collector base. There’s more of an emphasis on people looking at established categories like modern masters, blue-chip post-war, [and] Surrealism.”

A dedicated evening sale at Christie’s focused on Surrealism did well, for instance, realizing nearly £39 million (nearly US$47 million) with 30 of 32 lots sold. Sotheby’s will hold a dedicated Surrealist sale on March 15 in Paris.

But works by young contemporary, often female, artists continued to attract interest all week. At Phillips, “it was the cutting-edge woman artists who stole the show this evening,” Olivia Thornton, head of 20th-century and contemporary art, Europe, said at a news conference following an evening sale on Thursday.

Most notable among these artists at Phillips was Caroline Walker, whose large-scale work Threshold, painted in 2014, generated consistent back-and-forth volleying for more than 11 minutes. It eventually sold to a bidder in the sale room for a hammer price of £730,000, £927,100 with fees—a record for the artist.

Other records were achieved by Sarah Ball, whose Elliot, sold for £120,600, with fees, above an £80,000 high estimate, and by Angela Heisch, whose Egg White Blue sold for £76,200, above a £30,000 high estimate.

The results followed strong bidding for female artists at Christie’s earlier in the week, which included the previously minted record for Walker of £693,000 for The Puppeteer. Cristina Banban’s La Fatiga Que Me das (You Exhaust me) also achieved a record, selling for £163,800, above a high estimate of £70,000, and Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s Love me nots achieved £730,800, far above a £60,000 high estimate.

But also at Phillips, a dynamic canvas by Gerhard Richter offered by French collector Marcel Brient for between £10 million and £15 million, was withdrawn at the last minute. Although the work “generated interest from collectors,” it was not at a level that met Brient’s expectations, and so he “was not prepared to let it go,” Cheyenne Westphal, Phillips chairman, said at a press briefing after the sale.

The absence of the Richter resulted in a dramatically different overall auction total of £20.3 million for Phillips. The revised estimate for the 23 remaining works was between £15.8 million and £22.2 million.

Another work offered by Brient, an untitled late work by Willem de Kooning from 1984, sold for a hammer price of £5 million, £6 million with fees, below the presale low estimate of £7 million.

While the froth may be out of the market at the moment, there is some cautious optimism of the future, with a handful of single-owner collections anticipated for May. Already announced at Sotheby’s is a group of works to be offered by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem of San Francisco, including a major work by Pablo Piccaso, in addition to the Erving and Joyce Wolf Family Collection of decorative and fine arts. Christie’s, meanwhile, will be selling 16 modern and post-war paintings from the collection of S.I. Newhouse that could realise more than US$144 million.

“We’re only going to see more as we get closer to those sales,” Watson says. It’s a sign, he adds, of “cautious optimism for the higher end of the market in New York.”

Buyers, however, remain more conservative, as was evident with some of the major works offered this week, such as Lucian Freud’s portrait, Ib Reading, 1997, which sold for £17 million, within expectations, at Sotheby’s. They are willing to buy, but at the right price.

“Buyers are pretty savvy, especially at the high end, and will kind of expect a bit of a discount” considering current macroeconomic and geopolitical conditions, Watson says. As a result, auction houses will need to be disciplined in how they price works. “It’s not really a market where you want to push estimates,” he says.

One notable shift this week was renewed active bidding from buyers in Asia, Watson says.

At Christie’s, a bidding war between collectors in Japan and Singapore for a painting by Shara Hughes, Rough Terrain, ended in the hands of the collector from Singapore who placed a bid of £500,000, well above the £300,000 high estimate. Overall, 13% of bidders were from Asia during Christie’s evening sale of 20th- and 21st-century art and a separate sale of Surrealist works.

Sotheby’s, meanwhile, credited “deep bidding” from Asia for driving results at its evening sales, with several of these collectors noted as the “underbidder.” Over half the lots in Sotheby’s The Now sale of ultra-contemporary works received bids from Asia, while Asian buyers secured Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Out of your mind… In your face), 1989, which realised £889,000, above a high estimate, and Andy Warhol’s portrait of Debbie Harry, which realized £6.9 million, also above a high estimate, after spirited bidding in both instances.

An Asian buyer also bought Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1986, at Sotheby’s, in another active bidding round. The final price, with fees, was £24.2 million.

At Phillips, the last two lots attracted several online bids from China, although the paintings—Ball’s Elliot, and Danica Lundy’s Bonefire—went to a collector bidding via a specialist on the phone and to a Canadian online bidder, respectively.

Whether the results in London portend the future for the art market this year remains to be seen. It may be best at this point to consider a post-sale press conference comment from Phillips CEO Stephen Brooks, who said, “It’s difficult to draw conclusions from one week of sales.”



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Along with pay rates, the latest report from the ACSI shows bonuses are no longer based on exceptional results

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The CEOs of the ASX 200 were paid a little less in FY23 compared to the year before, but bonuses appear to have become the norm rather than a reward for outstanding results, according to the Australia Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI). ACSI has released its 23rd annual report documenting the CEOs’ realised pay, which combines base salaries, bonuses and other incentives.

The highest-paid CEO among Australian-domiciled ASX 200 companies in FY23 was Greg Goodman of Goodman Group, with realised pay of $27.34 million. Goodman Group is the ASX 200’s largest real estate investment trust (REIT) with a global portfolio of $80.5 billion in assets. The highest-paid CEO among foreign-domiciled ASX 200 companies was Mick Farrell of ResMed with realised pay of $47.58 million. ResMed manufactures CPAP machines to treat sleep apnoea.

The realised pay for the CEOs of the largest 100 companies by market capitalisation fell marginally from a median of $3.93 million in FY22 to $3.87 million in FY23. This is the lowest median in the 10 years since ACSI began basing its report on realised pay data. The median realised pay for the CEOs of the next largest 100 companies also fell from $2.1million to $1.95 million.

However, 192 of the ASX 200 CEOs took home a bonus, and Ed John, ACSI’s executive manager of stewardship, is concerned that bonuses are becoming “a given”.

“At a time when companies are focused on productivity and performance, it is critical that bonuses are only paid for exceptional outcomes,” Mr John said. He added that boards should set performance thresholds for CEO bonuses at appropriate levels.

ACSI said the slightly lower median realised pay of ASX 200 CEOs indicated greater scrutiny from shareholders was having an impact. There was a record 41 strike votes against executive pay at ASX 300 annual general meetings (AGMs) in 2023. This indicated an increasing number of shareholders were feeling unhappy with the executive pay levels at the companies in which they were invested.

A strike vote means 25 percent or more of shareholders voted against a company’s remuneration report. If a second strike vote is recorded at the next AGM, shareholders can vote to force the directors to stand for re-election.

10 highest-paid ASX 200 CEOs in FY23

1. Mick Farrell, ResMed, $47.58 million*
2. Robert Thomson, News Corporation, $41.53 million*
3. Greg Goodman, Goodman Group, $27.34 million
4. Shemara Wikramanayake, Macquarie Group, $25.32 million
5. Mike Henry, BHP Group, $19.68 million
6. Matt Comyn, Commonwealth Bank, $10.52 million
7. Jakob Stausholm, Rio Tinto, $10.47 million
8. Rob Scott, Wesfarmers, $9.57 million
9. Ron Delia, Amcor, $9.33 million*
10. Colin Goldschmidt, Sonic Healthcare, $8.35 million

Source: ACSI. Foreign-domiciled ASX 200 companies*

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