Back to the Future. New York sales a hint of things to come?

5 11 2010

In constrained economic times, it would be unsurprising to see art buyers swinging their attention to established artists from days of yore. Sure enough, in the latest series of fine art auctions held in New York, some surprising prices were realised for work by artists who were out of favour during the boom. Particularly notable was the sale of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses, 1904 (pictured above). The painting was offered for sale with a pre-auction high-end estimate of US$5 million, and a flurry of bidding quickly pushed the price to $35.9 million, including buyer’s premium. The first session of Sotheby’s auction of 19th century European art realised a healthy $61.5 million and by my reckoning, based on Sotheby’s published results, they sold a healthy 75% or so of the lots on offer.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modernist auction results from 3 November are equally impressive, with a sale total of just under US$231.5 million, and a clearance rate of 80% of the lots on offer. A new record price was set for Henri Matisse for the monumental bronze Nu de dos, 4 état, acquired by über dealer Larry Gagosian on behalf of a private client (in the New York Times, Carol Vogel hints the monied collector in question may be hedge fund billionaire, Steven A. Cohen). The hunger for works by Italian sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, remains unsated, with Femme de Venise V selling for $10,274,500 to a private buyer. An important 1913 cubist painting by Juan Gris, Violon et Guitare, also set a new auction record for that artist when it sold for over $28.6 million to a private European collector. In its press release, Christie’s Americas Chair, Marc Porter, credits the success of the sale to “deep bidding from a diverse group of collectors representing North and South America, Europe and Asia.”

When Sotheby’s goes to auction on 23 November in Sydney, with an estimated sale range of A$3,879,000-5,292,000 and featured lots by artists Rupert Bunny, John Peter Russell, Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, the powers-that-be will undoubtedly have their collective fingers crossed that the trend back towards traditional and modernist masters has translated to the Antipodes. And, with 20 of the 94 lots on offer by sculptor Robert Klippel, let’s hope bronzes are all the rage here as well.

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Art investment made easy, or, parking your loot in Picasso

6 05 2010

Picasso’s 1932 painting “Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust).Picasso made some pretty extraordinary works of art. Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur, 1932, pictured at left, is not one of them. But, proving the old maxim that money and taste aren’t always found hand in hand, the aforementioned painting set a new record price for an artwork sold at auction when the hammer fell at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday night. The going price? US$106.5 million. The sale just narrowly pipped the previous record holder, Giacometti’s Walking Man I, which sold for US$104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London earlier this year (both these prices include buyers’ fees). While I’m at it – as wonderful as Giacometti’s work is, I’d really love to know why his work in particular has been going through the roof of late. Who has the greatest vested interest in seeing his prices go up? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely interested in finding out. My inherent suspicion is always peaked when an artist’s market rallies in such a dramatic fashion, particularly when compared with the prices being paid at auction for equally well-regarded peers’ works of art.

But, back to Picasso. A price precedent has been set for large Picasso canvases for quite some time. Way back in the economic golden days of 2004, someone paid US$104.1 million for Boy with a Pipe, 1905 – in my opinion a far more powerful work than the latest record-breaker. For those fortunate people who managed to hold onto the odd pile of cash in the wake of the GFC, this means that a high-profile Picasso painting is a good place to park said cash while the stock market continues to buck and turn. With the economic and political situation in Europe looking ominous, it’s no surprise at all to find that secure material assets are finding favour amongst investors. Word is that much of this investment is coming from China.

The idea of art as material asset really took off in the post-war decades – in 1955, Fortune magazine declared art to be one of the most desirable international currencies. The art market as we know it today, particularly the auction trade, came into its own after then. Whereas previously auctions tended to be the purview of sombre and serious dealers and dedicated collectors, in the 1960s and beyond, they became social affairs as high society and the monied classes tussled over artworks that would bring them cachet and, if they were lucky, a secure way to invest a portion of their fortunes. No matter how unimpressed you are by Picasso’s market-topping painting, for whomever divested themselves of the equivalent of Greece’s national debt (ok – yes, an exaggeration) to acquire it can be pretty certain that their money is safe, as long as the art market status quo remains steady. And there are too many wealthy individuals and organisations heavily invested in said market for it to be undermined anytime soon.

And, as an aside, for anyone who questions why Christie’s closed its Australian branch and how Tim Goodman managed to secure what amounts to a Sotheby’s franchise Downunder, consider this – the price for the Picasso painting in Australian kangaroubles amounts to about $118 million. During the boom years 1999-2008, only once did the total… TOTAL … amount of art sold at auction in Australia exceed that amount. The approximate average for that ten year period was about A$90 million. In short? To say the Australian market is small change for the international auction leviathans is something of an understatement.

(image via nytimes.com)