How Has Brexit Impacted the Auction Industry?

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“It was not our season for masterpieces,” said Christie’s Cristian Abu about a recent event held in Brexit’s shadow.

Like most global industries, auction houses are keeping a close eye on Brexit and its aftermath. On January 24th, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the EU Withdraw Agreement. This began a transition period that will last at least until the end of the year. Many have already written about Brexit’s perceived blow to several recent UK auctions, including those hosted by Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali (1977), the highlighted piece from Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. Photo from Christie’s.

On February 12th, Christie’s held the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London. The event featured twelve Andy Warhol pieces, including a portrait of Muhammad Ali. Nonetheless, the auction’s total sales were the lowest in a decade for Christie’s in this season. That includes 30% less than the auction house’s haul at last year’s event. 

Christie’s co-head of contemporary art, Cristian Abu, admitted to The Art Newspaper that Brexit strained this season’s auction. “It was not our season for masterpieces,” he told the publication. This is despite Christie’s making industry-forward choices with the event. Many lots featured the work of young, female painters from the US, which generally sold well. “Christie’s was a little bit creative in those first few lots and gave space to artists who would normally be consigned to a New York day sale,” said the senior director of The Fine Art Group, Morgan Long, in the same article. 

Artnet’s report of the auction mentions Brexit as a key factor for lagging sales. But they also cite the recent departure of Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art in Europe, Francis Outred, as another contributor to lagging sales. In the article, Artnet calls the team remaining in London “young and relatively inexperienced”. 

Auctioneer Oliver Barker sold David Hockney’s The Splash (1966) after just two bids. Photo by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

On the same day, February 12th, Sotheby’s also hosted an auction in London, highlighted by David Hockney’s The Splash. In total, estimates from the auction were down 22% from the previous year’s event. Both Artnet and the New York Times wrote about the cloud Brexit cast on the auction. The Hockney piece, for example, sold after just two bids to Sotheby’s specialist Jackie Wachter of Los Angeles. The final price was US $29.8 million, which the New York Times and other publications reported being a slight disappointment. After all, in November 2018, it was Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) that set the record price for a work by a living artist at auction (US $90.3 million). 

“The Hockney was a bit disappointing as a spectacle but it has to be put in the context of what’s happening at the moment in Asia,” said art dealer Brett Gorvy to the New York Times, referencing the coronavirus. Gorvy’s comments are a reminder of how difficult it is to isolate the impact of a single event on the global auction market. After all, reports from both the recent Sotheby’s and Christie’s events point to factors beyond Brexit for disappointing results. 

Still, the auction calendar continues. Current Sotheby’s events in London include the auction of Pablo Picasso pieces from the collection of his granddaughter, Marina Picasso. Christie’s will return to London in mid-March with the Prints & Multiples auction. Meanwhile, the UK has set a self-imposed deadline of December 31st, 2020 to become fully autonomous. Under that timeline, the country must conclude negotiations with the EU by mid-October. The UK can, however, choose to extend the deadline by June. That means major Brexit events could still impact the global auction market throughout 2020 and, in the worst-case scenario, well into next year.