More Dollar Signs

I went to last Saturday’s SFCamerawork auction expecting to see a lot of photos being sold below the low estimate which is pretty much what happened. Of the 151 lots, 114 sold for below the low estimate, 33 sold within the range in the catalog, and only 4 exceeded the high estimate. As I said, this is what I expected given the state of the economy. What I didn’t expect was, when I went back and looked at my notes from the last auction I attended, that those numbers were roughly the same distribution as in 2006.

Though there were more lots in 2006, 180  to Saturday’s 151,  the percentage of pieces that sold for below the low estimate was actually greater 78% to 75%. There were more sold above the high estimate in 2006, 7% to 3%, but there were also fewer sold within the estimate range, 15% to 22%. It makes me wonder how they come up with their estimates. Does Camerawork come up with the estimates or are they provided by the person who donates the work? In Camerawork’s case it’s probably in their best interest to have the estimate high so that the buyer will feel more inclined to bid if they think they are getting a piece for within or below an estimate. With the donors, especially if it is a gallery representing the artist or the artist themselves, then it gets a bit trickier. You want the work to go for as much as possible, but you don’t want it to go for under the estimate and possibly effect future prices. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure that this auction has that much influence on prices.

The four pieces that sold for above the catalog’s high estimate were Richard Gilles’ Clement Ave. & Oak Street, Ann Hamilton’s book weight (human carriage), Dinh Q. Le’s Untitled, and Hank Willis Thomas’ Who Can Say No To A Beautiful Brunette?. The Dinh Q. Le actually went for $12,000 on an estimate of $5000/$8000 establishing a new record (according to the auctioneer) for a piece sold at a Camerawork auction.

Dinh Q. Le, Untitled, 2004
Dinh Q. Le, Untitled, 2004

I’m missing data from 2007 and 2008, but Le’s work seems to be on the rise in terms of popularity. In 2003 a piece estimated at $850/$1000 sold for $1100. In 2004, on the same estimate a piece sold for $2600. In 2005, for a work the same size as 2004, the estimate moved up to $4500/$5500 and the work sold for $3200. Though it didn’t meet the estimate there was still an increase in the price reached compared to the previous year. The work on offer this year was the same size as both 2004 and 2005 and again the estimate had moved up and was exceeded. The bidding can down to two particular bidders. The winning bidder also bought lots from John Collier, Flor Garduno, Todd Hido, Pirkle Jones, Marion Post Walcott and Edward Weston. I don’t know if the winning buyer was a dealer or collector, but the underbidder was a dealer, who could have been bidding for a client, his gallery, or himself.

In general the lots are quite affordable. Whether it was a boom year like 2005 or a bust year like this year a majority of the lots went for $500 or less (roughly 60% in 2006 and just over 50% in 2009). So, if you are looking for affordable art or just want to watch the show, the SFCamerawork auction is a good place to start.

I also mentioned Sarah Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World in my last post and wanted to follow up with a mention of the special report on the art market that she co-wrote with Fiammetta Rocco in the Nov. 28th–Dec 4th of the Economist. The report considers the art market in light of the current economic conditions and addresses issues like primary vs. secondary markets, Andy Warhol as a “bellwether”, and the flow of Chinese art back to China. It’s worth checking out as either an addition to the book that deals with more current events or as an introduction to the topic.

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