June auction revenues were off 70 percent in London this year, due in large part to job cuts and an unwillingness to guarantee lots. Even the occasional sign of hope had to be taken with a grain of salt, as lower expectations tended to magnify this year's results falsely.
Together, Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury pulled in $269.4 million in this summer's sales – off 70 percent from a year ago. In addition to the mechanical drivers of lost jobs and guarantees, the auction houses haven't had an easy time bringing high-profile, high-value pieces to market. Every event in London this summer unloaded at least two-thirds of its inventory, and success rates rose to above 88 percent at the Sotheby's and Christie's events this past June, but lingering in the background is the notion that 2009, at this point, is nothing like 2008.
To some, the current art slump is reminiscent of the early 1990s, in which a bubble in Impressionist art pricing precipitated a general decline, and nobody could get a realistic sense of a piece's value. The market took several years to recover, but it has since passed the levels of nearly 20 years ago. The Impressionists are down 68 percent this year, roughly in line with global trends, with the contemporary market off approximately 73 percent. New York fared no better than London, with contemporary sales at Sotheby's down 75 percent and Christies off 72 percent.