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Resilient Market Marches On at $1.6B Spring Sales

Some art market observers shook their heads in disbelief, while most breathed a sigh of relief as the New York spring auctions turned out yet another string of spectacular prices and record sale volumes.

NEW YORK—Some art market observers shook their heads in disbelief, while most breathed a sigh of relief as the New York spring auctions turned out yet another string of spectacular prices and record sale volumes.

Continuing financial market volatility and fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis have had far-reaching negative effects around the globe, but these appear not to have made a dent in the art market, despite widespread concern that this would be the auction season they finally would.

Sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, de Pury & Company from May 6 to 16 yielded a total of $1.57 billion. While that figure represents a decline of $183 million, or about 10 percent, from the record $1.75 billion fall season in New York (ANL, 11/27/07), it is still one of the highest totals ever recorded, and more than the $1.49 billion realized last spring. Just three years ago, the total for the spring season was a combined $598.4 million. Now Sotheby’s and Christie’s individual totals well exceed that in a typical season.

“I’m surprised by the longevity of this liquidity—how long and widespread it is,” New York dealer Richard Feigen told ARTnewsletter. “I’ve been predicting that the contemporary-art bubble will burst. I’m not so sure right now,” he said.

The trend of contemporary-art sales overtaking sales of Impressionist and modern art picked up considerable steam in the latest round of auctions. Of the nearly $1.6 billion total, contemporary-art sales accounted for $973.4 million, compared with Impressionist sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s of $598 million (Phillips does not hold sales of Impressionist art).

By comparison, last fall contemporary art accounted for sales of $950.3 million, while Impressionist and modern art sales totaled $804.5 million. And while the highest price this season for any Impressionist painting was the $41.5 million paid at Christie’s for an 1873 Claude Monet landscape, the contemporary sales yielded double that sum when a Francis Bacon triptych from 1976 sold for $86 million at Sotheby’s.

The results of the latest sales lend even more credence to the notion that growing ranks of buyers from outside the U.S.—particularly new buyers from Russia, the Middle East and China who have amassed tremendous fortunes—are fueling the art market’s continued boom and making it less susceptible to volatility based on narrow demand. London-based Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, for example, reportedly purchased a Lucian Freud painting for a record $33.6 million at Christie’s.

“Who bought what is of course fascinating,” says Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries. “We know the art market is international. We know there are Chinese buyers; the Middle East is represented—whether it’s buyers from Israel or Turkey. The market is strongly supported right now despite the economy being what it is.”

Marc Glimcher, president of PaceWildenstein, New York, says he was not surprised at the record prices or the level of demand, given the high quality of works on offer. “The quality, and the discerning level of the collectors . . . these things chase each other up. You don’t really know what is ahead until something goes wrong and the good material starts to run out.”

“We didn’t see market forces in play,” Glimcher adds. “We continue to see collectors and the forces that drive collecting at play.”

Christie’s had the largest market share, reporting a combined total of $756.3 million for its evening and day sales. Of the total, Impressionist art accounted for $325.5 million, while contemporary art took in $430.8 million.

Sotheby’s was close behind, with a total of $742.38 million. Of this, Impressionist sales were $272.6 million, but contemporary sale volume was considerably higher, at $469.8 million. Phillips reported a total of $72.8 million in contemporary-art sales, which included a benefit auction for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, that raised $1.9 million.

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