Auction Talk: London Photo Sales 2019

Well, I started typing this out and realised that I had waaaaaaay too much to talk about so I’m splitting this issue into probably 3 or 4 issues, all about the London May 2019 Photo sales (I don’t think you’ll see this in the same order again). This one is just about overall stats, then I’ll go into a little more detail about the sales in particular. Buckle up. I will also point out at this early stage that of my time I spent maybe 10% writing, 15% compiling the statistics and 75% working on the infographics. Is that a justifiable split? It was my first time doing infographics and I have a tendency to edit to near perfection. Anyway.

Getting Online

When I was interning at an auction house in Laandaaaan, they had me do one specific task during the auction season. Nowadays it’s possible to follow auction results in more or less real time because the big houses live stream their sales. It’s a way for a physically immobile, geographically stagnant representation of an auction house to increase its accessibility on a worldwide scale. This means that if a sale takes place in London someone in Brazil or Sweden can bid on the stock without leaving their country. It’s just like bidding on eBay, except completely different of course. 

This method of tracking the sales from a live stream differs slightly from doing all one’s bidding on a telephone through an agent, which is a common practice for VICs (Very Important Clients) who prefer to keep their identities as secret as the recipe for Coca Cola. With telephone bidding the agent is an auction house specialist who is their client’s main contact. The most obvious difference between bidding online and through the phones is that your location isn’t made public. With online bidding the identity of the bidder is obviously kept hidden, but their location is displayed for all to see. Online bidding is equally a way for the auction house to keep its public face contemporary and fresh; it shows that they’re keeping up with the times. 

My job as an intern was to follow the sales online and write down the hammer price for each lot, noting whether it was sold or bought in (i.e. unsold during the auction because it didn’t reach its reserve price, which is the amount agreed upon by specialist and consignor prior to the auction) and the estimates. This was a not exceedingly interesting task and required a lot of close attention. Also a strong wifi connection.

The £10,000 Question

Why am I mentioning this? It (just!) occurred to me that I’d missed out on commenting upon the May sales of this year. I think as a general rule it’s interesting to watch the auctions for several reasons. One obvioso reason is that $10,000 is (to the logical, non-artistically minded part of my mind) a crazy amount of money to spend on a piece of paper and anything above that is plain bonkers. But analytically speaking you can learn a lot from the sales themselves; you can track photographers at auction and see their progression since they first came to market, you can analyse how specific auction houses are doing when it comes to their photographs sales and of course you can work out how the market is doing, en general.

So if we look at the May sales from earlier this year we might be able to tell at least a little about how things are doing. I think it’s time for an infographic. I will say that I’m almost exceptionally proud of this little infographic because it’s the first one I’ve made, it took me cumulatively maybe 6 hours and I think it doesn’t look too shabby. 

Infographic created and based on basic stats calculated by yours truly [1]
Admittedly the colour scheme is a bit sugary
Lovingly created with Piktochart

May Sales

What you can see from this is a big difference, although it doesn’t initially look that way. In the interests of not being labelled a total moron, I did look up Christie’s results but decided not to include their sales because they were online only. So the comparison is between Sotheby’s and Phillips, one auction house over 100 years old and recently taken private and the other also over 100 years old and privately owned. I never thought of Phillips as equally established as Sotheby’s or Christie’s but it’s been about since the late 18th century. Anyway. 

Phillips certainly had a stronger sale; 77% sold by lot means that 77% of their sale sold. I totally forgot how to calculate the “sold by value” stat so pulled that from Phillips’ press release which shows it was 82%. [2] Sotheby’s sale was weaker; a 39% unsold or BI (Bought In, meaning it didn’t achieve its reserve so didn’t sell at auction) stat.

Hi To Lo

En general, Phillips did better, and the stats supports this assessment. Phillips total sales (which includes premiums, taxes, etc) almost doubled Sotheby’s total sales amount, which could be explained by the further 44 lots Phillips had over Sotheby’s, although it’s funny that the average lot price shows a difference of just over a thousand pounds in Phillips’ favour. Phillips sold many more lower value lots compared to Sotheby’s, and they definitely sold more high value lots; 17 lots over £30,000 compared to Sotheby’s 8.

Big Hitters

According to an analysis of the Photographs market over a 10-year span, artnet derived the best-selling photographers into a list of 32. From that they they filleted it down to 17 who had established a track record of appearing within the top 10 best-selling photographers. The names read more or less like a canon of 20th century VIPs (Very Important Photographers) [3] with some fairly obvious exclusions but I guess you can’t always get everything.

If we go through the list and check against the Sotheby’s and Phillips London May 2019 sales we’ve got more or less the following numbers presented to you in STUNNING infographic format:

Another infographic created by yours truly
Colour scheme changed slightly and style grew up a bit, I think
Again, created with Piktochart


These stats that I’ve cobbled together are a very simple way of looking at London’s photo sales. It just gives you a brief view of what happened in that month and how much stuff en gros was bought. Next issue I’ll go into more detail about each sale and highlight lots that surpassed their high estimate, didn’t achieve their reserve, important photographers and less well known photographers.