Amid Some Normalization, ‘Crème de la Crème,’ Midlevel and High-Profile Collections Boost Art Market

Amid Some Normalization, ‘Crème de la Crème,’ Midlevel and High-Profile Collections Boost Art Market

  • Sotheby's International Realty
  • 04/6/24

We expect to see great estate collections come to market in greater volume over the next decade.”

Mari-Claudia Jiménez

Head of global business development, Sotheby’s


While the art market is experiencing a bit of a reset—after pandemic-era demand pushed sales to a lofty US$16.4 billion in 2021 and US$15.9 billion in 2022—high-profile collections are still driving strong prices. 

“We expect to see great estate collections come to market in greater volume over the next decade, and as they do, these sales will dominate the art world as singular convening moments in which collectors will have a rare opportunity to acquire major works that are fresh to the market, having remained hidden from view for decades if not generations,” says Mari-Claudia Jiménez, head of global business development, Sotheby’s. “More than ever, we are seeing the power of provenance motivate collectors to learn about art through the lens of other important collectors as well as be inspired by their stories."


Big-Name Auctions Rule

In September 2023, Sotheby’s presented Freddie Mercury: A World of His Own, a six-part auction featuring a never-before-seen trove of fine art, costumes, and personal wardrobe items, musical instruments, hand-written draft lyrics, decorative arts and furniture, and personal belongings of the late Queen frontman. A total of 150,000 people visited the touring exhibitions around the world, with the auctions attracting 41,800 bids across 1,406 lots. The series was 100% sold, with nearly 99% of lots selling above their high estimates, to bring a combined total of £40 million (US$50.4 million), against an estimated £7.6 million to £11.3 million—a record for any collection of its kind. Bidders came from 76 countries, and more than 85% were participating at Sotheby’s for the first time.

Among the most exciting moments were the record set for a composer’s piano (Mercury’s Yamaha Grand Piano, US$2.2 million); the price achieved for the autograph manuscript draft lyrics for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (US$1.7 million); the record set for a piece of jewelry belonging to a rockstar (Silver Snake Bangle; US$881,717), and the soaring price paid for Mercury’s Tiffany & Co. Silver Moustache Comb (US$193,853).

In November 2023, the collection of the late Emily Fisher Landau, one of the greatest American Modern and Contemporary Art patrons of recent years, achieved US$406 million in sales, and included the US$139.4 million sale of Pablo Picasso’s Femme à la montre, a painting of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, which took the top spot as the most valuable work of art sold at auction in 2023. The collection also included standout works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and a piece from Agnes Martin, Grey Stone II, 1961, which sold for US$18.7 million, after a seven-minute battle among eight bidders. The price as the hammer came down doubled its US$8 million high estimate and set a record for the artist.


Strong Sales at Midlevel: At the Top, Fewer Sales, But Strong Interest

While some buyers may welcome a post-pandemic “return to normal” as a sign of softening prices, in the highly segmented and complex fine-art market it can be misleading to look for blanket pricing trends, Jiménez says.

Overall, in the first half of 2023, Sotheby’s saw its sales results down a modest 7%, compared with a drop of 23% and 40% at its auction-house peers Christie’s and Phillips, respectively.

Muted overall sales in the first half of 2023 were largely due to a 51% contraction at the US$10 million–plus end of the market, while sales of lesser-valued works topped last year’s levels. Sales were up 14% through May 2023 for works in the US$1 million to US$10 million range, and up 18% in the US$100,000 to US$1 million segment, according to Artnet.

This is a sharp about-face from 2022, when sales at the top end of the market surged to almost US$5 billion, the highest level in more than five years, while sales declined in lower price brackets, Artnet data show.

Fewer works are now coming to public sale, but those that do stir excitement among buyers, particularly in the US$15 million-and-up segment known as the Masterpiece market, Jiménez says. “We’re still seeing a deep market for works in this high-end price range of up to US$40 million or more, with more than four bids per lot. That’s an increase of nearly 30% over 2022.”

More bids, of course, mean continued pressure on pricing. “Each additional bid in an auction leads to an increase in the hammer price of 25% to 30%, so having four bids is the sweet spot to maximizing value,” Jiménez says.

The sale of Gustav Klimt’s famous Lady with a Fan hit that sweet spot at a Sotheby’s London auction in June 2023 with an around US$108 million price, the highest ever fetched at a public art sale in Europe, and the highest on record for the Austrian artist’s work.


Image: Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan)—the last portrait created by Gustav Klimt—sold in London in June 2023 for around US$108 million, becoming the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction in Europe.


Image: This brightly colored landscape of the Bavarian village of Murnau, titled Murnau mit Kirche II, sold for around US$45 millionin London in March 2023, setting a record for Wassily Kandinsky.


The prearranged minimum price for the work, depicting a bare-shouldered woman wrapped in an opulent robe, was US$80 million, but after 10 minutes of bidding, a fourth bid by Patti Wong, a Hong Kong art advisor, sealed the deal.

The sale of Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau With Church II in March 2023 set a record for the artist’s works at auction around US$45 million. 

And most recently, Sotheby’s modern and contemporary art sales in November 2023 saw a total of 27 works sell for more than US$10 million—among the most ever for a marquee week at the auction house—signaling a rebound at the top.

“When pieces at this end of the market come to market, they are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, so people, regardless of uneasiness about the economy or what’s going on in the world, tend to jump on them,” Jiménez says.

In the middle market between US$5 million and US$15 million, sales volume was high in 2023, but the bidding didn’t have the same fervor as in the high end, Jiménez says. “You see far more price sensitivity at this level.”

Interestingly, the market for European Old Masters—works from the late 13th century to the early 19th century—held up best. While the Old Masters market has accounted for a shrinking proportion of the overall art market for years, it tends to be more stable in uncertain times. 

Among notable sales in 2023 in this category was a portrait of Marie Antoinette’s pet dog, Pompon, by Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre. The estimated sale price was between US$3,000 and US$5,000, but at an auction in May, 15 bidders drove the final price to US$279,400. 

Overall, buyers in 2023 were highly selective, leaving some works on the table, unsold, at auction, but still driving up prices on rare pieces.

“Anything a bit more average or not so unique isn’t getting the same bidding activity as top-quality, fresh-to-the-market opportunities,” Jiménez says. “Clients have refocused on the crème de la crème.” 

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