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Auction Volume Surges As Art Market Rebounds

An abundance of blue-chip artworks met with intense demand from wealthy collectors from around the world in the spring sales of Impressionist and modern art earlier this month, helping fuel a substantial rebound in volume at the biannual auctions.

NEW YORK—An abundance of blue-chip artworks met with intense demand from wealthy collectors from around the world in the spring sales of Impressionist and modern art earlier this month, helping fuel a substantial rebound in volume at the biannual auctions. Evening and day sales brought in a total of $593.3million, a 97 percent increase from the $301million total of last fall (ANL, 11/17/09) and a 185 percent increase from the $207.9million total of last spring (ANL, 5/26/09). Christie’s total for the evening and day series was $360million, far higher than the $88.5million total seen last fall, while Sotheby’s posted a total of $233.3million, also above the $212.6million achieved last fall.

“If this momentum as we have seen it is sustainable, then certainly the art market has recovered more quickly than it did in the early 1990s, where it seemed to take three to four years to get traction,” said Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries, New York. “Activity seems to be clustered at the top, a pattern which perhaps has been forming for a long time, in that a relatively small number of international buyers are willing to spend lots of money on a very small number of objects,” Findlay said. “But I’m not sure what’s going on underneath that,” in the middle market, he added.

Indeed, a flurry of bidding from private collectors led to a new record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction—$106.5million, paid at Christie’s for Pablo Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932—as well as eight-figure prices for works by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Amedeo Modigliani and Auguste Rodin, and for three separate sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. The Picasso had a stellar provenance, having been off the market in the prestigious Collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody (Frances Brody) in Los Angeles for the past 50 years.

Paul Gray, a director of Richard Gray Gal­lery, New York and Chicago, told ARTnewsletter, “The only remarkable thing is how much confidence there still is given the relatively short time since people thought the wheels were coming off the world.” The continued presence of buyers at the top end of the market, he added, however, is “the same story that the art market has been telling for a long time. Collecting art is something that people come to slowly, but once they’re in it, they stick with it.” Gray said the gallery was outbid on nine of the ten works it pursued during this Impressionist series.

“What has helped the market is the availability of top-quality works. That is what has excited people,” Findlay told ARTnewsletter. Findlay believes that masterpieces such as the Picasso Nude will find buyers regardless of the economic backdrop. “There was no master plan for bringing these works to auction,” he said, referring both to these sales and to Christie’s sale of rare works of Postwar and contemporary art from the estate of the late Michael Crichton. “These works came to auction because people died. If they had come to auction in 2007 or early 2008, would the prices have been any higher or lower?”

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