LONDON • Looking back at the headlines, 2015 was a momentous year for the art market.
In May, Picasso's 1955 painting Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) sold at Christie's in New York to an unidentified telephone bidder for US$179.4 million (S$255.3 million), a high for any artwork at auction.
Led by that sale, Christie's became the first auction house to sell more than US$1 billion worth of art in a week, with a double bill that included 20th-century masterworks on one night and a selection of big-name contemporary pieces the next.
Then, in November at Christie's, billionaire Chinese collector Liu Yiqian offered a winning bid of US$170.4 million for Modigliani's 1917 Nu Couche.
These dizzying and highly publicised auction peaks created a sense that the art market was booming. But overall, sales at auctions, the one element in the market for which demand can be statistically quantified, showed signs of slowing growth and even contraction last year.
According to data provided by London analysts ArtTactic, auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's raised US$3.7 billion last year from sales of post-war and contemporary works in New York and London.
That was 6 per cent less than in 2014, although sales of modern and impressionist works, which were given a boost by the Modigliani, increased 14 per cent year-over-year to US$2.7 billion.
"There is a plateauing of prices at the highest end of blue chip," said Mr Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners, an advisory company in New York. "This is healthy after five or so years of unprecedented rise. But this may be more a sign of how difficult it is to source top material."
While the best of artists such as Bacon, Basquiat, Richter and Warhol might be in short supply at auction, Mr Schwartzman said there was still a tremendous amount of dealer activity in post-war and contemporary art in the under-US$2 million range.
However, it is difficult to quantify private sales in galleries and at art fairs. "What I would say is that there are at least 10 times more collectors seriously engaged in the market than there were a decade ago," he said. So, if numbers do not tell the entire story, what were the trends of last year? For one thing, the market for fashionable young abstract painters underwent a correction.
In November 2014, for example, an 2.4m-wide 2013 abstract by on-trend Brazilian artist Christian Rosa sold at Christie's New York for US$209,000. Twelve months later, another abstract of the same size and date by Rosa sold at Sotheby's for US$30,000.
"The young market had been blown out of proportion," said
Ms Candace Worth, an art adviser in New York who specialises in the "primary" market of new works from galleries. "For US$40,000 to US$50,000, you could get better deals with many mid-career artists," she said.
Instead, the market rediscovered figurative art. Los Angeles painter Jonas Wood was one of the flavours of the year.
Nine of Wood's brightly illustrated paintings sold at auction for between US$200,000 and US$840,000 last year and a solo exhibition comprising a suite of seven large-scale flower drawings, titled Clipping Index 1, is at the Gagosian Gallery in the billionaires' Caribbean playground of Saint-Barthelemy until Jan 31.
Collectors also turned to neglected byways of international art history. Dansaekhwa, a type of Korean monochrome abstraction that came to prominence in the 1970s, was the subject of exhibitions at the American galleries Blum & Poe and Alexander Gray Associates last year.
Artists such as Ha Chong Hyun, Yun Hyong Keun, Park Seo Bo and Chung Sang Hwa are little known in the international market, but that is likely to change this year.
A brick-red monochrome from 2005 by Chung, whose works evoke Yves Klein, sold for a new high of about US$1.1 million with fees at a sale in Hong Kong by Seoul Auction last October. Then, there was the opportunism of those who were astute enough to have bought the C-prints that accompanied a Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel in 2014.
One of them, Haggadah, numbered 205 of 500, sold for €42,500 (S$65,800) at Sotheby's in Paris on Dec 10. The museum had retailed the print for US$1,500.
The two big auction houses appeared to be on divergent paths. Christie's could point to its US$1.4 billion double-header in May as a measure of success, although, as a privately held company, it does not have to reveal whether it made a profit.
Sotheby's, which is publicly listed, is facing the challenge of trying to claw back market share from Christie's in contemporary art without spooking investors by spending too much on guarantees.
NEW YORK TIMES