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During the depths of the global financial crisis eight years ago, the art market was severely constrained but did not receive the level of valitudinary scrutiny we see in today’s healthy but constrained market. Of course, the constraints today—sellers with a surfeit of assets and cash seemingly unmotivated to part with great works of art, a lack of market direction with no specific artists or categories providing ‘leadership’—are different from the constraints of the credit crisis when all assets were correlated and falling and only art owners with no other place to go for cash were selling.
Somehow the focus on the art market’s health now is greater as expectations of ever-continuing rise have met another market disruption. Here’s the Wall Street Journal obsessively fixating on the market’s health:
Market watchers are monitoring these sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary art for signs of a potential art-market turnaround, and collectors say the first week’s results are encouraging.
Sotheby’s record sale for an auction in Europe has given the press the false sense that everything has changed when in reality little about the market has shifted on the demand side. Demand persists but art values are in flux. Colin Gleadell offers a good illustration from last night’s sale in his discussion of a portrait by Modigliani of painter Tadeusz Baranowski which was offfered in 2013 for $25m but failed to find a buyer.
[The consignor] had to settle for slightly less as it was knocked down, albeit within estimate, to an unidentified bidder in the room for £16 million ($19.8 million). Still, it was a reasonable upgrade on the £4.3 million they bought it for in 1998.
You can decide for yourself whether the problem was outsized expectations in 2013 or that the market has “recovered” to make the sale. Judd Tully offers more dramatic evidence that the idea of a recovery is in the eye of the successful seller:
Theo van Doesburg’s dramatic shaped canvas “Contra-Composition VII” from 1924, formerly in the grand Chicago collection of Morton G. Neumann, sold for £1,568,750/$1,939,916 (est. £1.2-1.8 million). It was a strong showing against the estimate but a weak one when compared to the work’s last auction outing, at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, when it made $4,184,000.
Nevertheless, Sotheby’s managed their sale exquisitely. A full half of the value was covered with irrevocable bids but still the presence of bidders for many of the lots gave the art market confidence, especially when the buyers, as Colin Gleadell points out, are the kind that the market truly esteems:
The star lot was Gustav Klimt’s Flower Garden which sold for £48 million ($59.3 million). Sotheby’s had purchased the rare landscape either in part or in whole from the owner, who had acquired it in London in 1994 for £3.7 million. Now estimated in region of £35 million, it attracted keen bidding from Asia before selling to the winning bid taken by Andrea Jungmann from Sotheby’s office in Vienna—home to several great collections, public and private, that feature Klimt’s work. Jungmann also took the winning bid for a small Klimt portrait which was not guaranteed and more than doubled estimates at £4.3 million. Her buyer for this was the Gustav Klimt Vienna Foundation.
Sotheby’s also made a smart bet on Picasso arranging irrevocable bids on several that performed very well. Three of the evening’s Picassos made eight-figure prices. The artist garnered £54.7m ($67.6m) across the board or a third of the evening’s total. Ermanno Rivetti summed it up in The Art Newspaper:
It was a good night for Picasso’s late works too: of the five pieces dating from the 1950s onwards, only one sold for a hammer price under the lower estimate, three were comfortably within range, and one standout, monochrome portrait of Françoise Gilot, Femme assise dans un fauteuil sur fond blanc (1953), crept slowly but comfortably past its upper estimate and sold for £10.6m (£12.1m with fees) after a lengthy phone bidding war between three clients.
The euphoria has caused some interested parties to make a dubious connection between the art and financial markets, as if equities are the only investment vehicle available to those with surplus cash. These sales show that the art market is not “back,” just as it was never gone, but that bringing the right works to market can achieve decent prices:
This result, together with other strong prices at Christie’s Impressionist and modern sale the previous evening, seemed to signal a strengthening of the international art market. The high-end auctions of contemporary art will be tested in London next week. “There’s a general sense of investor confidence,” said James Roundell, a director at Dickinson, the London dealers. He pointed out that the Dow Jones index had risen more than 300 points during the day.
Asian Collectors Spur Brisk Bidding at London Auctions (WSJ)
Sotheby’s London Sale Smashes European Record (artnet News)
Sotheby’s Super-Heated Night (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Klimt helps Sotheby’s reach auction record in London (The Art Newspaper)
A $59 Million Klimt Tops a Landmark Sotheby’s Auction in London (The New York Times)