LONDON—Art market activity in 2011 started with a bang, but finished the year on a more subdued note. Major auction houses will not produce their annual sales figures until early this year, but results on Sotheby’s website indicate that there has been a 12.2 percent rise in its worldwide auction sales, to $4.9 billion. Up until the end of July, sales were generally meeting and sometimes exceeding expectations, but, since September (in Europe and the U.K.), they have consistently fallen below their estimates. Although there are exceptions, the trend suggests that the eurozone crisis has taken its toll, experts say.
In addition to auction sales, there will also be private sales to factor in, an increasingly popular part of the auctioneers’ business. Last year, private sales accounted for 10 percent of business at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, at $1 billion. During the first six months of 2011, Christie’s increased its private sales by 57 percent, and Sotheby’s recorded its best first six months ever with a 114 percent increase in private sales.
In spite of the private sale of four Henri Matisse bronzes, for an estimated $120 million in November (ANL, 11/8/11), it is uncertain whether Sotheby’s will reach the record $6.2 billion for a year, achieved in 2007, but it will be close.
The top-selling works, as usual, have been modern and contemporary art. While blue-chip Impressionist and modern art dominated the recessionary period of 2009 and early 2010, the market this year has seen a swing back to Postwar and contemporary art, especially in New York where contemporary art sales surged ahead again. At the November fall auctions in particular (ANL, 11/15/11), fresh material sparked competitive bidding from buyers all over the world and affirmed the continued strength of the market.
At the end of a four-day sale series (both evening and day auctions) at Phillips de Pury & Company, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the overall contemporary art total was $769.4 million, compared with $400.2 million achieved in the Impressionist and modern art evening and day sales series held the preceding week.
The total was also strong compared with $755 million in contemporary sales achieved in fall 2010 and $718 million totaled this past spring.
A major feature of the modern market has been the strong prices for Surrealist art. Last February, a record £13.5 million ($21.4 million) was paid in London for Salvador Dali’s Portrait of Paul Eluard, as well as a record £2.5 million ($4 million) for a work on paper by René Magritte. In New York in May, a Russian buyer paid a record $9 million for a painting by the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux, and in November, a painting by Max Ernst sold for a record $16.3 million.
The major casualty of the Impressionist sales was a sculpture by Edgar Degas offered at Christie’s. Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, a bronze with a muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on a wooden base, was executed in wax ca. 1879–81 and cast in bronze at a later date. It was heavily marketed by Christie’s and given an estimate of $25 million/35 million, a price many observers said was too high.
When it was last sold at Sotheby’s London, in June 2000, the sculpture was acquired by a private European collector for £7.7 million ($11.6 million) on an estimate of £7 million/9 million. At the recent auction, it was bought in without a single bid after the lot was opened at $14 million.
For auction houses, knowing when the new buyers from Asia, Russia or the Middle East would strike was the name of the game. While none fell for the Degas, an Asian buyer did claim the top Pablo Picasso, a portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, at $21.4 million in New York’s May sales.
Russian buyers claimed the top Francis Bacon works of the year, including three small portraits of Lucian Freud, for £23 million ($40 million) in London, while competition between Russian and Asian buyers for abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter, whose major retrospective at the Tate Modern closed Jan. 8, drove prices to a record $21 million in November.
Two of the ten-highest prices of the year were paid in London for Old Masters from old British collections. Francesco Guardi’s exceptionally large view of the Rialto Bridge in Venice will be going abroad unless funds can be found to match the £27 million ($42.9 million) paid for it, while George Stubbs’s sporting masterpiece, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, sold for £22.4 million ($36 million), the third-highest price ever for an Old Master. Meanwhile, a rediscovered Leonardo da Vinci is on loan to an exhibition in the National Gallery with a reported $200 million value attached to it.
The top prices at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were for American Abstract Expressionist and Pop art works. The previously underrated Clyfford Still soared to a record $62 million (ANL, 11,15,11), while a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon-style painting fetched $43 million.
But the most expensive painting at auction was not in London, Paris or New York, but in Beijing. In May, a traditional ink and brush painting of an eagle standing on a pine tree flanked by calligraphic scrolls, by China’s biggest-selling artist, Qi Baishi, sold for $65 million at China Guardian Auctions. The Chinese market may have cooled down of late, and may have less reliable standards of reporting concerning sales, but when the analysis is done, there will be no denying just how close China is to becoming the largest art and antiques market in the world.
A report titled “The Global Art Market in 2010: Crisis and Recovery, ” commissioned by the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), which takes place each spring in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and authored by Dr. Clare McAndrew, found that the value of China’s art market nearly doubled in 2010, and that its share of the global business rose to 23 percent, overtaking Britain’s 22 percent.
Additional reporting by Eileen Kinsella