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A Print is Worth A Thousand Words...And Much More Money

A Print is Worth A Thousand Words...And Much More Money
November 2, 2023
Dylan Dittrich


ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)

Photo: Christie's

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Evening contemporary art sales at Sotheby's and Christie's host bidding audiences with seven or eight figures ready to dispatch at the strike of a hammer for the right piece.

Most of us aren't equipped to join the hunt for an iconic, original Warhol or Picasso. Though those pieces capture the most headlines, they represent just the intimidating summit of a collecting iceberg far bigger beneath the surface. For example, prints & multiples events at these houses offer works typically created in numbered editions of a few hundred. These prints represent a more "accessible" collecting option for those who can't afford to line their halls with works worthy of the Met. "Accessible" is used in extraordinarily relative terms here, as many prints & editions from renowned artists still comfortably sell for five and six-figure sums.

The fine art market has labored through recent months at auction, teetering on the brink of a marked downturn and inspiring caution as the pivotal November slate approaches. Those New York events will tell us much about the state of demand for some of the world's most valuable collector's assets, with a $60 million Basquiat on offer among other trophies. We don't need to wait for a read on the market for more affordable prints, though. Each house held its large, New York-based prints & multiples event last week, amassing nearly $15 million in sales between the two events.

The results reflect a market on similarly unsteady footing but with significantly more active bidding than amongst its more unique and expensive peers.

The Christie's and Sotheby's events saw 19% and 18% of lots go unsold respectively. Sell-through rates of 81 and 82% aren't indicative of disaster, particularly in events featuring hundreds of lots, but they also aren't cause for celebration. As with many art events in recent months, there's a tepidity that sews unease. Numerous prints by Warhol, Picasso, Hockney, Johns, and myriad other household names can be found among the unsold lots.

It's among the sold works that there's more reason for optimism. Despite the unsold lots, the aggregate hammer ratio was 1.04 at Christie's and 1.07 at Sotheby's. Aggregate hammer ratio measures the total hammer price against the total low estimate for the event. A reading above 1.0 for this figure, which incorporates the impact of lots that failed to sell, generally indicates market health. Recent results at evening sales have begun to slide below that level.

Better still, there were pockets of active bidding that drove many lots well above estimates. Interestingly, both events had the same headlining lot: Andy Warhol's Moonwalk prints. The prints soared past their estimates at both houses, with a $693,000 sale at Christie's (versus a $250,000 low estimate) and a $635,000 result at Sotheby's (versus a $300,000 low estimate). Those are the two highest prices ever recorded for the prints, replacing the prior high watermark of $567,000 set at the same Christie's event just one year ago. The pair offered at Sotheby's previously sold for only $293,000 at Phillips in 2016, appreciating at a rate of just under 11% annually since.

The artist who made the print art form his own was unsurprisingly a frequent target of bidding admiration. Warhol's Buffalo Nickel was another standout, hammering at more than 3x its low estimate and more than tripling its record sale. His Mick Jagger (F&S II.143) also narrowly set a record for any individual Jagger print at $215,900, hammering at more than 2x its low estimate. The prior record for a Jagger print was $214,200 set in October of last year, while the record for that specific print was $201,600, achieved in July of 2021. Chicken Noodle Soup from Campbell's Soup I also set a new record at $81,900.

The breadth of successful results was limited, though. 15% of lots hammered above their estimate range at Sotheby's, while 21% achieved that feat at Christie's. Contrast that to 48% and 40% respectively either failing to sell or hammering below estimates. This is a market sending mixed signals, albeit with some stronger activity on display than in higher-priced original works. And though Black Friday may be soon approaching, if you were hoping to grab an iconic Warhol print at a discount, the market is adamant about not presenting that opportunity.

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