Throughout 2010, record-setting sales served as powerful jolts of adrenalin for the auction market, which had been sluggish in 2009. The year opened with a bang: In February an iconic, sinewy bronze sculpture of a walking man by Alberto Giacometti stunned Sotheby's London salesroom when it more than tripled the house's presale estimate, selling for $104.3 million. Giacometti's L'homme qui marche I was an outlier; excluding the sculpture's phenomenal sum, the average price of a work in that sale was only $3.5 million. Nonetheless, the bold display of the Giacometti proved that high quality consignments had the potential to soar in 2010.
Consignors responded to this green light immediately. Whereas highly valued masterpieces were rare in 2009, reassured sellers sent top-tier works tumbling across the auction block in 2010. Christie's and Sotheby's--the rival auction houses that dominate the market worldwide--ditched the conservative estimates that had become their defense for dealing with conservative buyers and sellers in 2009. In May, for instance, Christie's offered Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for upwards of $80 million; the work made good on the house's astronomical expectations, eking past the Giacometti sale price to bring $106.5 million--the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.
These jaw-dropping sales--along with a slew of unprecedented prices for artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Roy Lichtenstein--made it feel as though the market has fully recovered from the recession, even though it hasn't. Buy-in rates in most categories are still higher than they were in 2007, and auctions produced fewer sales over $10 million than they did in the heady days of the boom. Even though the market isn't quite as bright and shiny as it was two years ago, the takeaway from 2010 is that it will bear masterpieces.
New York has been the center of much of the year's record-setting action, holding blockbuster sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, as well as notable auctions of Photography, Indian and Southeast Asian art, American art and Latin American art throughout the year. As the Editor of The ART Report, a monthly newsletter that profiles trends in the auction market, I've been following these big Big Apple auctions closely; for this slideshow I handpicked a selection of the most memorable New York art sales of 2010.
Katherine Jentleson is the Director of Analytics at Art Research Technologies in New York. She is the editor of The ART Report, a monthly newsletter that provides high-level analysis of the auction market in a timely fashion. Her art market research appears regularly in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. She is also a PhD student in the Art History Department at Duke University; her research at Duke is on American art and the art market.