FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2016, file photo, a work by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, "Girls on the Bridge," is displayed at Sotheby's, in New York. The auction for the painting is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 14, in New York City. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Edvard Munch's Girls on the Bridge: more than a third of the auction's value © AP

Sotheby’s kicked off the closely watched art auctions this week in New York with a successful sale — but thin bidding, softer prices and the reluctance of sellers to take their treasures to market meant it was half the size of last year’s.

The New York auction house managed to sell almost 80 per cent of the lots offered at its Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday. That assuaged some nerves in the art world following the turbulence of the US presidential election. 

Art prices have cooled after rising for several years. Global art sales fell to $63.8bn in 2015, down 7 per cent from the previous year, according to the industry benchmark Tefaf Art Market Report.

To weather the dip, Sotheby’s and its rival Christie’s have scaled back the size of their auctions, trimmed staff and cut guarantees they offered to encourage consignors. Sales at Christie’s fell 27 per cent in the first half of 2016, and last week Sotheby’s reported a third-quarter loss of $54.5m. 

The auction on Monday generated $137.2m, before any premiums are added — falling short of the low estimate before the sale of $142.8m.

Including the premiums auction houses attach, Sotheby’s sold $157.7m of works, compared with $306.7m at last year’s sale.

The auction was “plodding”, according to US Trust’s national art executive Evan Beard, and included some “day sale material” — works that would not normally be worthy of the more prestigious evening time slot. 

“I give credit to the auctioneer,” he said of Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. “She was able to pull bids out of the room.” 

More than one-third of the total sale figure — $54.5m, including premiums — was a single painting by Edvard Munch, “Girls on the Bridge” (1902), snapped up by a single bidder.

Another work, by Vincent van Gogh, “Nature morte: vase aux glaieuls” (1886), also went to a lone buyer who bid $5.8m.

Art buyers are experiencing a shift in the market’s dynamics, according to dealer Helly Nahmad. For the past decade, masterpieces have been met with strong demand, while lesser works lagged behind. Masterpieces continue to do well, he said, but now works that “people see as mediocre are also achieving high prices because there is so little material available”. 

“People are realising the great masterpieces are so few and far between — if they want to own these artists, they want to have what they can get their hands on. The market has a serious supply problem.”

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