Q&A: Sotheby’s Alex Branczik on October Sales
A Contemporary art sale by Sotheby’s in New York in May this year caused a tremor when a Jean-Michel Baquiat painting was sold for $110.5 million. However, the auction house’s own indicator of success are not records but sell-through rates, which were over 90% in its June sale in London. Alex Branczik, head of Contemporary art, Europe, hopes the trend will continue in October sales as well.
The genre of Contemporary art is very closely watched primarily because of its own strength in the market as well as for its strength versus Impressionist and Modern Art. In light of this, what are your guiding principles when you put together highly anticipated sales such as the one that will take place in London on October 5, the Contemporary Art Evening Auction?
As with every sale season, through our global team of specialists, we endeavor to source a mix of important, fresh-to-the-market works that we know will appeal to the collectors gathering in London for Frieze Week. The October season in London was once considered a mid-season sale, but it has grown dramatically since the inaugural Frieze art fair 15 years ago, and is now a major draw for collectors from every corner of the globe. Traditionally, it has also been the week in the calendar when we have showcased emerging, younger artists alongside the more established names, so it’s always a fantastic time to discover new art in our New Bond Street galleries.
The breaking of record prices is an important characteristic of Post-war, Contemporary, Impressionist and Modern art sales. Do you predict the tumbling of some important records in the October 5 sale?
While it’s always thrilling when records are broken in our saleroom — perhaps never more so than the remarkable Basquiat record we saw in New York in May— one of the real indicators of the depth and vibrancy of the market is the strong-sell through rates we’ve seen at our recent auctions. Our June sale in London was the fifth consecutive major Contemporary sale worldwide with a sell-through rate of over 90 percent, indicating significant interest from collectors across all periods and styles — and it’s certainly a trend that we hope to see continuing in October.
Is there a fundamental way in which the Contemporary art sales in New York are different from those in London? Are buyers looking at different ‘Contemporaries’ in New York and London? Could you explain?
The market is increasingly global, but local differences remain. All our sales, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong, Paris or London, have their own unique character. While New York is where we stage our highest value Contemporary auctions, London is probably our most global saleroom, both in the geographical spread of the artists we offer and in the range of nationalities of the collectors who bid here. The city remains a crossroads for the global art market, a place where you are just as likely to see fantastic results for American greats like Warhol and Basquiat as you are for a Korean artist such as Park Seo-Bo or for European artists like Gerhard Richter, David Hockney and Lucien Freud.
Could you throw some light on the way Chinese Contemporary Art is sold across your top locations? How different is the composition of these sales in different cities and why so?
One of the most exciting developments in the Chinese market in 2017 came in April, when for the first time we offered major Western Contemporary —including pieces by Warhol, Basquiat and Ghenie — alongside important Asian artists at our Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong. In the same sale, we saw tremendous results both for the Chinese 20th century master Zao Wou-ki and the American 20th-Century master Andy Warhol. In fact, Warhol’s “Mao,” which sold for $12.6m, established a record for any work of Western Contemporary art sold in Asia.
What are the dominant features of Contemporary art today? By definition it is supposed to be devoid of any geographical accoutrements; however, are there some regions of the world that the buyers are more interested in right now? And why is it so?
We live in an increasingly globalized society where artists travel the world incessantly for biennales, museum shows, art fairs and special projects. Geographical boundaries are much less relevant than they have been in the past, both for artists and collectors. Many Chinese collectors, for example, initially started by collecting exclusively Chinese Contemporary art, but for a number of years now we’ve also seen huge interest in Western Contemporary art among Asian collectors.
There are allegations that that quite a bit of Contemporary art may not stand the test of time as Impressionist and Modern Art have done, and that quite a bit of it is not as top class as would be expected of a genre that does so well in the market. Could you please comment on this, and if it indeed is true, then how does a collector of Contemporary art ensure that his purchases will stand the test of time?
It’s important to remember that Impressionist and Modern art was the avant-garde of its day. Some of the great artists of the early 20th century suffered the same allegations that get levelled against Contemporary artists today. Collectors engage with the art of today because it explores new ideas and resonates with the culture of our times, which is what makes it such a dynamic collecting category.