The International Herald Tribune’s art market reporter began the week a skeptic of the YSL sale boldly pointing out that the collection–in his estimation–did not quite reach the taste level advertized:
“This is a very important auction,” said Souren Melikian, the longtime art editor of The International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times. “There are a large number of high-quality objects, not necessarily as stunning as billed, but high quality bought over a large number of years. And they come to auction at a time when the market is winding down, when there is less available than 20 years ago.”
Of course, Melikian said, “the auction is enhanced by the attention these two characters have attracted to themselves.”
Indeed, after the first blow-out session, Melikian sensibly retained his principled skepticism and offered this tonic:
It started off in a low-key fashion, with works that were neither spectacular, nor typical of their respective authors’ better known styles. The very first lot was a hilly landscape, seen by Edgar Degas through an open window from a room in Rome or Naples during the long trip he took to Italy between 1856 and 1859, in the Romantic naturalistic style of the time. It bears no relationship either to his very Spartan landscapes of the late 1860s or his Impressionist period, and yet it brought a healthy €457,000.
But by week’s end, a new feeling had come over the scholar. High prices were indicators not of a buying frenzy but of a discerning art historical eye:
To market insiders, lesser works which the media give scant attention flashed an even more heartening message concerning the health of the art market. When an atypical landscape painted by Degas, in a Romantic naturalist style unrelated to the Impressionist period for which he is famous, opens the proceedings at €457,000, nearly matching the high estimate, this tells you that art lovers are buying with as much determination as ever.
Some of the change of heart seems to have come during the impressive sales of works of art–especially the gold German presentation cups–which Melikian believes are a better gauge of connoisseurship:
Objects are a better gauge of the true collectors’ frame of mind because, unlike paintings, they do not lend themselves to hype as easily as pictures, where world-famous names give auction press offices something that can be celebrated in simple terms.
We’d like to point out that the consistently high prices across so many objects would–combined with the fact that many of these items are fashioned out of precious metals–suggests the buyers were less knowledgeable than needful of an item from the “Sale of the Century.” Though any attempt at reading the mind of buyers is pure speculation.
Finally, Dr. Melikian feels the YSL sale is a watershed event:
The extraordinary three-day auction of the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé collection has put the global art market in an entirely new perspective. It has finally demonstrated that the art market is set on a separate trajectory from the rest of the world economy and, even more importantly, it has altered the international power balance on the auction scene. [ . . . ]
Christie’s – owned by a French businessman, François Pinault – and Bergé have together placed the French capital at the very heart of the international art market. A major new hub may have come into being.
Much of this may prove to be true in the course of time. There’s good reason to believe New York’s dominance of the art market will be balanced by a renewed vigor in Europe in years to come. But to suggest the art market is on a separate trajectory from the world economy is rash–and highly uncharacteristic for the more noble-minded scholar.
The market value of art–distinct from the cultural or personal value–is expressed in monetary terms. As such, it can never be divorced from the world economy. The YSL reflects the importance of the collection and the curious financial moment we’re experiencing when many of the world’s wealthy still have great reserves of cash. To truly measure the art market’s health–meaning the relative value placed on art over other more productive assets or other luxury goods–we will have to wait some time until we know the shape of the world economy to come.
Paris Auction Reflects a Major Turning Point for Art Market (International Herald Tribune)