The shopworn term paradigm shift is nowhere more apposite than in today’s art market, where the ascendance of auction houses has transformed the way major art is valued, bought, and—most importantly—sold. While sales of marginal and mid-tier works in every category have continued to languish, the activity at the pinnacle of the marketplace demonstrates that, now more than ever before, demand for masterpieces far outstrips supply. While dealer and private-treaty sales still account for the bulk of the transactions, the deep reach that Sotheby’s has into such important categories as contemporary art and antiquities has enabled the firm to secure the best pieces, repeatedly break records, and ultimately define the market.
Last year, two particularly impressive works were sold from the Sotheby’s podium. The auction house’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in May 2012 made history when Edvard Munch’s The Scream established a new world record for any work of art sold at auction. In a mere 12 minutes, eight bidders were reduced to one, as the New York financier Leon Black purchased the drawing over the phone for $119.9 million. One of four versions of the celebrated image that Munch rendered in different media, the pastel on board—still in the artist’s original frame—was executed in 1895, the same year that Munch created a lithographic edition. The following December, at the house’s Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, a Renaissance masterpiece by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, fetched nearly three times the estimate. The auxiliary cartoon forthe Head of a Young Apostle—a preparatory study in black chalk for the artist’s Transfiguration—came from the Duke of Devonshire’s collection and achieved the highest price for a Raphael artwork sold at auction, $47.8 million.
Both blockbuster sales support the theory that putting the most rare and desirable art in a room with the most discriminating and qualified bidders is a formula for success. Sotheby’s has mastered this strategy.
Sotheby’s, 212.606.7000, www.sothebys.com