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Spring Art Auctions: Confidence Is Back

The recent series of spring auctions in New York marked a sharp rebound in the market for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art.

NEW YORK—The recent series of spring auctions in New York marked a sharp rebound in the market for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art. Overall volume at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company May 4–14 totaled $1.2billion, roughly triple the $421 million total of last spring’s series, which had the lowest auction volume in seven years. When the art market entered a sharp downturn in late 2008, there was a pronounced “flight to quality,” experts told ARTnewsletter, with collectors moving away from younger contemporary artists and buying blue-chip works by established masters like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti. Contemporary sale volume, which had previously often eclipsed that of Impressionist sales, dipped considerably. This season the totals were roughly equal, with Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (Phillips does not hold Impressionist sales) totaling $593.3million and Postwar and contemporary sales at all three houses taking in $580.8million.

However, experts say, the speculative frenzy of the past is still largely gone, and buying remains thoughtful and measured. “Confidence is definitely back from a year ago, but buying is selective. People have to really know what they’re doing,” said Christophe Van de Weghe, owner of Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York. “There are some markets that are dead, particularly for younger artists that produced a lot of work at such an early stage of their career. It is problematic where prices went up so much, because it’s difficult to sustain a $500,000 price when a Warhol drawing can be acquired for the same amount.” On the other hand, great works by such artists as Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein have mostly been “recession-proof,” he added, and after a dip last year, Warhol prices are once again “super strong.”

“There’s no question that the market has rebounded. It helped that Christie’s had these two powerhouse estates,” Sara Kay, director of fine arts at Jan Krugier Gallery, told ARTnewsletter. “But even the day sales were very strong, which people maybe didn’t anticipate. There was consistent buying from collectors throughout the world.”

Christie’s, which scored consignments of a number of prominent collections this season, including the Collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody (the late Los Angeles philanthropist Frances Brody) and the collection of the late Michael Crichton, took in $652.1million this season, up from $248.9million last spring. Sotheby’s took in $476.6million, versus $160million last year. And Phillips took in $45.4million, nearly quadruple the $12.3million of last year.

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