The NYT Moves to Hammer-Price Reporting

The doyenne of art-auction reporters is Carol Vogel of the NYT: she sets the benchmark. And, it seems, the benchmark has changed, which makes for some weird comparisons as the changeover occurs. Here she is today, with a piece headlined "Triptych by Francis Bacon Is Sold for $46.1 Million":

A mysterious three-part painting that is viewed as a Francis Bacon masterpiece sold for $46.1 million Wednesday night at a Christie’s auction here, countering expectations of a record price for his work…

The hammer price was slightly below the auction’s presale estimate of $50 million to $70 million for the painting as well as Bacon’s previous record. In May his “Study From Innocent X” (1962) was sold for a record $52.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

The final price for this towering triptych, including Christie’s commission, was $51.6 million, the auction house said.

A reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that the $46.1 million price for the Bacon was $6.5 million short of the $52.6 million record for the artist. In fact, however, the $52.6 million figure includes the Sotheby’s commission, which means that the final price of $51.6 million fell only $1 million short of breaking the record.

The practice of leading with the hammer price and relegating the price including commission to a low-down "the auction house said" sentence is new. When Vogel reported on the Bacon record being broken in May, she didn’t even mention the hammer price:

Another record price was paid last night for Francis Bacon’s “Study From Innocent X” (1962)… It was estimated at $30 million, more than the record $27.5 million for a Bacon paid at Christie’s in London in February. That record nearly doubled when another unidentified telephone bidder paid $52.6 million.

(Final prices include Sotheby’s commission: 20 percent of the first $500,000 and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

I’m not sure why the NYT has made this switch. The cost of the painting to the buyer is the total price paid; the hammer price is just a mechanism for working out how much of the total goes to the seller and how much goes to the auction house. If a gallery sells a painting for $1 million, Vogel would never strip out the gallery’s commission and report only on the amount being pocketed by the artist. And in any case it’s not clear how much money the seller of a painting at auction will actually receive, since the auction houses (usually) charge sellers commission on top of the buyer’s commission. Maybe if Vogel is reading this, she might leave a comment to explain what’s going on.

Update: Has Vogel switched back already? Today she reports that the "Francis Bacon triptych fetched $51.6 million". Curiouser and curiouser.

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