Troubles on Wall Street have had art market watchers worried for months. But financial woes don’t seem to be affecting aspiring buyers of the most coveted works. At Christie’s inaugural spring auction on Tuesday night in New York, artist records were set for Monet, Giacometti and Rodin. But all was not so well below the surface — overall, the sale missed its low estimate. Well-heeled buyers may fancy the big names, but the middle of the market is weakening.
Some of the big money may have come from outside the US — oil wealth, perhaps, taking advantage of the weak dollar. Claude Monet’s 1873 Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil sold for $41.5 million (Rs171.8 crore) to a phone bidder. The painting of an iron railway bridge over the Seine set a record for the artist and topped Christie’s high estimate.
Works by sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Auguste Rodin also both set artist records. Giacometti’s 1960 Grande Femme Debout II brought in $27.5 million. And Rodin’s 1897 Eve, grand modèle - version sans rocher went for $19 million.
The overall auction, however, was not so triumphant. Christie’s total take was $277.3 million, just shy of its $287 million low estimate — the first such miss for an evening impressionist auction in four years. All in all, 14 of the 58 lots couldn’t find buyers. The next night, Sotheby’s also set records and beat its overall low estimate, but the auction firm had cut the sale down to its smallest in years.
Financial stresses and the destabilized dollar appear to be affecting American buyers. They only snapped up 32% of the works on Tuesday, down from nearly half in the auctioneer’s November impressionist sale — although to be fair, US buyers were further in evidence at Sotheby’s more selective sale.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s expect sales over the next two weeks to bring in some $1.8 billion. Highlights to come include Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1976, which Sotheby’s thinks could fetch around $70 million. But there are only so many Bacons and Monets out there. The art market’s less glamorous middle could be the harbinger of broader weakness.