Record turnover at London flagship sales but the buzz of the 1980s has gone
It's taken 17 years, but at last London's auction market for Impressionist & Modern art is now turning over more money than it did during the previous great art boom of the late 1980s.
Last week, for the first time ever, the two main auction houses each posted combined premium-inclusive totals of over £100m for their evening and day sales of Impressionist & Modern art.
Sotheby's Part I auction on June 19 fetched a record £88.7m, plus a further £20.6m from their following day's Part II and works on paper sales. Christie's June 20 Part I sale took £87m, plus a further £18.2m for their day events. The previous highest total for a series of Impressionist & Modern sales in London was the £99m achieved at Christie's in November 1989.
This was an historic moment for the London art market, yet such was the almost machine-like efficiency with which Sotheby's and Christie's were "choreographing" bidding from their growing global network of private clients, some of whom had never bid at auction before, that the atmosphere in the room at these record-breaking sales was, at times, strangely subdued.
Unlike the late 1980s, when masterpiece quality paintings by major names like Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso were inspiring truly stellar seven-figure prices from Japanese speculators, today's Impressionist & Modern sales are dominated by solid, mid-estimate sums being given for decorative, middling-quality works in the £500,000-2.5m range. New private buyers, particularly from Russia, have helped revive the formerly flagging market for Impressionist painting. For example, at Christie's a private Russian in the room blithely paid £650,000 for the 1883 Monet canvas Pêches, estimated at £300,000-400,000.
"There's much broader interest than there was in the late 1980s," says Henry Wyndham, Chairman of Sotheby's Europe, who was on the rostrum at the Bond Street Part I sale. "There are now many more nations bidding at these sales and a lot of new people in the market. There was a man in the front row who'd never been to a sale before who was bidding up to £4m. There are phenomenal amounts of money around at the moment."
Headline-grabbing highlights were, however, few and far between. The one out-and-out masterpiece on offer was Egon Schiele's rediscovered and restituted 1914 canvas, Herbstonne, which topped Christie's evening sale with a double-mid-estimate £10.2m from the New York art advisers Eykyn-Mclean.
Sotheby's star was Modigliani's more obviously decorative 1919 portrait, Jeanne Hebuterne (au chapeau) which, after an eternity of telephone bidding between two privates struggling with currency conversions, finally sold for £13.2m, just over upper estimate.
The Contemporary sales which followed were, for once, rather less bullish. Last February Sotheby's and Christie's Part I Contemporary sales in London achieved stunning record totals of £30.4m and £37m apiece, both of which were £10m ahead of their presale estimate. This time round Sotheby's and Christie's evening Contemporary auctions took £30m and £25.9m, well within pre-sale upper estimates. Ninety per cent of the material found buyers, but bidding was palpably less frenzied than in February. In terms of quality, Sotheby's Bond Street's June 21 evening sale had the edge. The £1.05m paid for Bridget Riley's 1966 Untitled (Diagonal curve) and £1m for Peter Doig's 1991 Iron Hill were new records for the artists, as was the sale-topping £2.6m given by Eykyn-Mclean for David Hockney's iconic 1966 Splash.
Christie's June 22 Part I Contemporary auction had fewer stand-out consignments, but they were at a clear disadvantage, being the fourth major evening sale of the week. Sheer exhaustion - and some over-ambitious estimates - resulted in a number of high-value failures, such as Luc Tuymans' important 2000 canvas, Maypole, deemed hopelessly over-priced at £900,000-1.2m. However, Christie's did have the compensation of setting a record £1.8m for Eduardo Chillida's rare 1960 iron sculpture, Rumor de Limites No.VI.
Merrill Lynch's recently published World Wealth Report suggests that the world's "ultra high net-worth individuals" are starting to shift their money from hedge funds into alternative investments. The traditionally safer haven of Impressionist painting, not Contemporary art, is now attracting many of these global alternative investors.
By Scott Reyburn