London: Future historians of Western societies will marvel at the divergent paths followed by the art market and the broader economy in early 2008.
The auctions of impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art conducted last week at Christie’s and Sotheby’s amply confirmed what the late January sales in New York had indicated: Most areas of the market seem to be immune from the anxieties taking hold of the outside world.
A new generation of art buyers with new money has arisen. By definition, these do not have the same experience nor the same degree of commitment to art. Many professionals feared that these new buyers might easily pull out in an adverse economic climate. Apparently this did not happen.
The unenviable task of testing the waters first was left to Christie’s on Monday night. There was a feeling of unease in the room as Jussi Pylkkanen, chairman of Christie’s international department of Impressionist and Modern Art, began to call out the first bids. This is probably why the first lot sold for only £636,500 or about Rs5 crore, missing the low estimate by 10%. Chaim Soutine’s Plane Trees at Céret, done around 1920 under the influence of German Expressionism, ranks among his masterpieces.
The second lot, a beautiful, melancholic view of a village road late on a mid-winter day, done by Pissarro in 1872 when Impressionism had not yet defined itself, still sold modestly for £468,500, slightly over the low estimate. But then the sight of the third painting, the portrait of a girl with a bow done by Alexej von Jawlensky in 1911 at the end of his Expressionist phase, galvanized the room. At £2.93 million, it matched the high estimate.
As the room slowly thawed, the first of two auction records was set with one of Kees van Dongen’s most remarkable portraits, The Ouled Nail Girl. The painting of 1910, worthy of any museum, shot up to £5.62 million.
Miraculously, a leftover recovered from the studio of Degas after his death in 1918 and stamped with his signature at the request of his estate before being consigned for auction, found grace in the eyes of bidders. Happily ignoring the clumsy composition, which includes a raised arm jutting forth from behind a trunk without a body attached to it, the Degas made £2.18 million.
At the end of the session, Christie’s posted the second highest total ever in any European auction, £105.4 million.
On Tuesday, Sotheby’s dazzling performance outshone Christie’s. On the day when the Dow Jones index lost 370 points, Sotheby’s pulled off a £116.7 million sale with only 76 lots. Here, too, world records were set. The portrait of a young model nicknamed Schokko, painted by von Jawlensky around 1910, ascended to £9.42 million, roughly doubling what it had cost the consignor at Sotheby’s New York on 5 November 2003. Shortly after, Franz Marc’s Grazing Horses III jumped to £12.34 million. At the equivalent of $24.37 million, this left well behind the previous record established at $20.2 million at Sotheby’s New York last November.
An even more telling indication of the bullishness of the market was the competition that some great paintings triggered. A small version of Renoir’s famous picture of a woman and a man in a box at the opera done in 1874, now in the Courtauld Institute, London, brought £7.41 million, nearly doubling the high estimate. This was moments after a beautiful pastel drawing of a seated ballet dancer adjusting her footwear, by Degas, had sold for £4.94 million, exceeding the high estimate by more than half. An admirable landscape of the French countryside under snow done by Monet in 1867, which would only appeal to sophisticated connoisseurs, made £4.27 million.
At the end of the session brilliantly conducted by Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, the room applauded. Three factors account for the vigour of the art market in an unfavourable economic context. Globalization, often cited by auction house spokesmen, helps. When one geographical area suffers, others remain more optimistic.
While only two of the 10 most expensive lots sold at Sotheby’s went to Americans—a £7.41 million cartoon-style portrait by Picasso and a £5.62 million portrait by Alberto Giacometti—seven lots were bought by Europeans, including the paintings by Marc and von Jawlensky.
Another factor is passion. Some buyers still spend money on art because they want to live with it.
Most important, a third factor sets the art market apart if the talk is about works predating the mid-20th century. Supplies are dramatically drying up and everybody knows it, even if some deny the fact. The rarity factor, present in every collector’s mind, sent the Renoir and the Degas soaring because the chances of coming across Impressionist works of that calibre are now remote.
By contrast, recent works propelled by the noise made around them without much substance to justify them, often crashed, leaving 17 of 54 lots dead in the water. Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Rome), a large scribble on white ground like those indulged in by four-year-olds on the walls of their rooms, would not have realized £3.94 million as easily were it not for its date, 1958. That establishes its credibility over a long period. Buyers, while still bullish, are now more keen to play it safe.
And that is likely to be the story of the art market in the next few months, if not longer.
©2008/International Herald Tribune