Is art the next momentum stock?

Sotheby's auction too rich for the rich

Twitter. FireEye. Nextflix. Picasso?

Along with the high-flying momentum stocks that have come crashing back to earth in recent weeks, we might soon be adding some of the highest-priced artists like Picasso, Monet and Degas.

Wednesday night's impressionist-modern sale at Sotheby's was one of the worst since the financial crisis. More than 30 percent of the lotsor 21 piecesfailed to sell at their minimum price.

Of the 50 lots that sold, nearly half went for less than $3 million, a surprise disappointment in a market where $20 million paintings had supposedly become commonplace. The auction total, of $219 million, barely met the estimated range of between $218 million and $318 million.

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Art is not the stock market, of course. And skeptics have been calling the art market a bubble for years, only to see it soar higher. But the Sotheby's sale, along with a mixed sale by Christie's on Tuesday night, suggests that art prices and expectations may have gotten ahead of themselves.

And like momentum stocks, the idea that works of art work increase in price regardless of their inherent value may be showing its limits.

"Le Sauvetage" by Pablo Picasso, on display during a preview of Sotheby's impressionist and modern art evening sale in New York, May 2, 2014.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

"A lot of things got overpriced," said Andrew Fabricant, a director of the Richard Gray Gallery in New York. "The asset piece of this market was overdone. The idea that you could sell a Picasso for six or eight million dollars even though it should be three million just no longer works."

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Still, there have been some successes and upside surprises in the art market this week. At Sotheby's Wednesday night, Picasso's 1932 work "Le Sauvetage" went for a $28 million hammer price (or $31.5 million with commission), way above the high estimate of $18 million. The work was purchased a decade ago for $14.8 million.

Christie's racked up an auction total of $286 million, led by one of Monet's water lily paintings that sold for $27 million. Yet Picasso's "Portrait de femme (Dora Maar)," the second-highest priced work at the Christie's sale, sold for $22.56 million with commissionbelow the $25 million to $35 million expected.

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The big test for the art market will be next week, when Sotheby's and Christie's hold their big evening sales for post-war and contemporary art. Those sales are expected to total more than $1 billion.

"Christie's has a great sale next week," Fabricant said. "There's something for everyone. And these are the pieces that today's collectors really want."

We'll see whether Basquiat and Bacon are the next Twitter and Tesla.

—By CNBC's Robert Frank.