New York's fall auction season ends Friday with figures sharply down owing to a lack of major works, but auctioneers insist the outlook is positive with the market remaining fairly strong.
In the past week, Christie's recorded sales of $683 million, 36 percent down on the (northern hemisphere) spring auctions in May and 38 percent lower than in November 2018.
The decline for Sotheby's -- which still had two series of sales to go later Friday -- was expected to be less severe, but still substantial.
For several years, auction houses have been boosted by the availability of major collections following the deaths of their owners, who were major collectors of the 20th century.
Twenty of the 36 artworks that have sold at auction for more than $80 million have been snapped up in the last four years, with 19 of those in New York.
But this season the most expensive painting was American pop artist Ed Ruscha's "Hurting the Word Radio # 2", which Christie's sold for $52.4 million including fees.
"There is certainly a paucity of great early 20th century pieces coming up for sale," said Georgina Adam, author of "Dark Side of the Boom", a book about the excesses of the art market in the 21st century.
Before sales kicked off on Monday, Christie's chairman of post-war and contemporary art Alex Rotter spoke of a reluctance amongst owners to sell, fearing that a worsening economic environment meant they wouldn't get the best price.
"Certainly, there is a feeling that a slump might be on its way. And there is great uncertainty around the world," Adam, a journalist, told AFP.
- African-American artists -
"On the other hand, interest rates are so low that putting some money into a safe, blue-chip work of art isn’t too much of a gamble," she added.
Edward Dolman, CEO of Phillips auction house, admitted that bidding was "measured" but added that buyers were there this week.
More than 20 artists broke individual records, including Ruscha, minimalist American painter Brice Marden and Poland's Tamara de Lempicka.
The week also saw demand soar for African-American artists. The record price for Alma Thomas, a favorite of the Obamas, quadrupled from $740,000 to $2.65 million. Norman Lewis's tripled from $965,000 to $2.8 million.
"We saw some articles saying that maybe this market was retracting. Actually, we are struggling to find sellers because the market is very strong," said Sotheby's senior vice president Gregoire Billault.
While death is a factor affecting supply, so is divorce, and the art market may benefit next year from the high-profile split of New York real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife.
Their art collection, valued at over $700 million, has been the subject of a bitter legal dispute. Auction houses are expecting to be able to compete for it in 2020.
"The market is counting on the juicy Macklowe divorce to boost it next year," said Adam.