At Art Auctions Market Seeks Its Footing After Stumbling Sales and a Hack at Christie’s

Estimates are still soaring past the $20 million mark and canvases still bear the signatures of dependable ringers like Warhol, Basquiat and Picasso. But there is a shadow looming over the spring auction season that begins Monday.

A cyberattack at Christie’s brought down the company’s website on Thursday, and as of Sunday morning, Christie’s had not yet regained control of it, but promised the auctions would proceed, at least in person. (A place-holder website was set up allowing access to the digital catalogs, but did not allow online bidding.) With the site down and questions still unanswered about the fate of confidential data, analysts are uncertain about the impact on buyers and sellers.

Over the next week, more than 1,700 works of modern and contemporary art are expected to be offered at the three major houses — Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips — with an estimate of $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion.

That represents a steep decline from the market’s most recent peak, in 2022, when the spring season generated an eye-watering $2.8 billion. But the bidding wars that characterized the pandemic spending frenzy have largely dissipated in favor of prearranged “guarantee” deals that assure paintings will sell for a minimum price. Young artists have also seen their secondary markets collapse as speculators exit the market. And a recent study by Bank of America Private Bank found that the average price of artworks sold at auction in 2023 decreased by 32 percent, the largest single-year decline in over seven years.

“There are all sorts of pointing fingers in the space, even among the auction houses,” said Drew Watson, who leads art services at Bank of America Private Bank. “The sentiment is pretty cautious. Either people are embracing more conservative estimates or deciding to sit on the sidelines to wait and see how things play over the next 12 months.”

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