Following the sometimes painful results of last week's Impressionist and Modern art sales in New York, there can now be little doubt that the worldwide financial distress is undermining demand for trophy paintings and sculpture. All sales missed their low estimates by some margin.
Just 64 per cent of the 70 lots found buyers at
Sotheby's evening sale of November 3 (the lowest
for one of these sales at Sotheby's for seven years) for a $197m
(£120m) total that was well below the $338m-475m overall
Auctioneer Tobias Meyer cited a "changed financial environment''
for what he referred to as a "new market'' for art.
Attempts to downgrade reserves set in the summer staved off any
'meltdown', and it was clear that the auction houses were keener to
sell and lose money on guaranteed works rather than hold onto them.
Ten days prior to this sale, Sotheby's had reported a loss of $15m
in guarantees from recent auctions in Hong Kong and London. More
will follow after this series.
There was speculation was that they took a substantial hit on
Edgar Degas's 1879 seated ballerina Danseuse au Repos that
financier Henry Kravis had bought at Sotheby's Bond Street in 1999
for a mighty £16m. In the summer, the auction house gave the
Kravises a guarantee that experts said was more than $40m. Yasuaki
Ishizaka, head of Sotheby's Tokyo, took the winning bid by phone at
With hedge-fund traders and Russian oligarchs suffering in the
financial markets, and oil prices falling, Sotheby's worked hard to
make sure their biggest-ticket items and biggest financial risks
remained covered. Kasimir Malevich's 1916 Suprematist
Composition sold to a single bid of $53.5m (£32.7m). The price
was a record for the artist by some distance, but the auctioneers
had announced several weeks ago that they had contracted a buyer to
bid on the picture, so it was bound to sell no matter what.
Their 'irrevocable bid' would provide the opening bid on the
lot. If someone else were willing to pay more, the proceeds of the
'upside' (the difference between what the guarantor was willing to
pay and the final price) would be divided among Sotheby's and their
risk taker. The buyer is understood to be a Russian.
Sotheby's had, however, been unsuccessful in keeping a $30m
Cubist Picasso in the sale. The official line was that the sellers,
heirs of the Surrealist painter Enrico Donati, who had bought
Arlequin (Buste) in 1947 for $12,000, were pulling the
work two weeks before the sale "for private reasons", but the
painting would have been tainted if it had failed to sell.
Casualties on the night included Modigliani's $18m-25m Homme
Assis (entered by the Nahmad family who had bought it at
Christie's in 1996 for £1.9m) and one of Monet's lavender views of
Rouen Cathedral pitched at $16m-22m.
The evening's brightest moment was the performance of Edvard
Munch's 1894 Vampire, a picture on the market for the
first time since 1934 and previously on loan to New York's
Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington's National Gallery of
Art. It, too, was subject to an 'irrevocable bid', but beat the
$30m estimate, selling to a US collector at $34m (£20.8m), an
artist's record that tops the $27.5m (£14m) paid for Girls on a
Bridge at Sotheby's New York in May.
Following a break for election night,
Christie's held back-to-back evening sales.
First was The Modern Age, a hardback catalogue
combining art from the estates of New York society figures Rita K.
Hillman and Alice Lawrence, met a lukewarm response on November
"The estimates (set early in the summer) were from an earlier
time, and the market has changed now," conceded Christopher Burge,
the evening's auctioneer. The two collections of good but not
stellar material brought a total of $43m (£26.3m) against its $104m
low estimate. Of the 58 lots, 17 failed to sell, including a 1960
Rothko No. 43 (Mauve) with hopes of $20m-30m that, like
all of the material in the Hillman property, had been guaranteed by
With owner François Pinault in attendance, Christie's painted a
slightly more encouraging picture of the market the following
evening. The highlight was a record for Juan Gris. His 1915 Cubist
still life Livre, pipe et verres, with a rich exhibition
history, found three bidders at its $12.5m-18.5m estimate. New York
private dealer Franck Giraud bought it for an American collector at
Nevertheless, with no urgency to vie for mediocre pictures that
suddenly looked very expensive, 36 of the 82 works (44 per cent)
went unsold for a total of $128.3m (£78.4m) - just over half the
pre-sale low estimate of $240.7m. Most lots packaged for the market
as it existed six months ago found little in the way of
Picasso's 1934 Deux personages (Marie-Therese et sa soeur
lisant), depicting the artist's mistress and her sister,
brought $16m (£9.8m), some distance below its estimate, while
Kandinsky's 1909 Expressionist Studie zu Improvisation 3
sold at its low estimate of $15m (£9.2m).
It was one of six lots in the sale guaranteed by Christie's, all
of which sold.
Giacometti sculptures have been a market strength in recent
years, but Three Walking Men I, conceived in 1948 and cast
in 1950, did not excite at $14m-18m. A lot Christie's had
guaranteed, it was allowed to sell to the Montreal dealer Robert
Landau at $10.2m (£6.3m), although this was twice the
premium-inclusive $5.7m (£3.5m) it had fetched at Sotheby's New
York in 1999.
Americans represented 61 per cent of the buyers, with Europeans
(a category that includes Russians) trailing at 26 per cent. Middle
Eastern collectors accounted for only two per cent of buyers.
Yet another test of this so-called "new market" comes this week
as Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips du Pury & Co all hold
their contemporary art auctions in the Big Apple.
By Roland Arkell