|Wednesday, May 09, 2012
2nd - 4th May 2012 by Oliver Shuttleworth
This spring has seen a new record set for a work of art at auction – Edvard Munch’s The Scream made the soaring price of 107m USD (119,900USD including premium). After two bidders fought it out the eventual buyer was on the phone with Charlie Moffet, a Sotheby’s President whose exceptional expertise has led him to know every major US buyer, which makes me suppose that the new owner is from the US, not Russia or Doha as many have expected. This is guesswork however but one day we will know for sure. There were 8 bidders to 60m USD, one of which was on the phone from China with the head of Sotheby’s Asia: Patti Wong. However, such enormous hype has been associated with this picture that is easy to forget the overall triumph of this sale week.
Sotheby’s Evening Sale fetched 330m USD and Christie’s 117m USD. It was a one-sided competition following the excellent sales at Christie’s in February in London. Accordingly, Sotheby’s fought back hard with aggressive deals to land two outstanding collections: the Munch from Mr Petter Olsen and the Forstmann Collection. For Forstmann’s works to be overshadowed by the Munch was a slight shame but this did not affect the prices for his extraordinary collection of stunning Impressionist and Modern works of art. From the Chaim Soutine Chaisseur de chez maxim’s (which sold for over 9m USD, albeit under the low estimate of 10m usd) to the fabulous Picasso Femme assise dans un fauteuil of 1941 which made almost 30m USD the whole collection made huge prices. Joan Miro’s Tete Humaine was for me a truly great work of art – a 1931 painting with collage and mixed media that was years ahead of its time, the picture fetched just shy of its high estimate – 14.9m USD. The old adage of the market being willing to pay for quality rang true in this case. Very little remained unsold and that was really testament to the quality of the Sotheby’s sale.
Whilst the focus of the press was very much on Sotheby’s it is easy to presume that Christie’s struggled. Yet they enjoyed some successes too and considering the comparative weakness of the sale there was very little for them to complain about. 90% of their works sold in the Evening Sale including a beautiful Fauve painting, Les Pivoines, by Henri Matisse for over 19m USD. The other special picture was the Cezanne Study for The Card Players which also fetched over 19m USD. The sale was taken for the first time by Jussi Pylkkanen who did a good job in the absence of Christopher Burge, the best auctioneer of his generation. Burge could carry a weak sale with his charm and complete control of the room, he was truly a one off.
With two such fabulous results, what can we read into the highest end of the art market heading into Summer 2012? There is clearly a large amount of investment being made by the super rich, who are gathering material assets in the form of top end works of art. Are they right to do so? Over the last three years we have seen gold prices rocket and house prices maintain their values in London and New York – Art is in the same league as an investment for better or worse. Art is an asset class that can be enjoyed, and unless acquired without professional help, should never perform as badly as many (increasingly) overpriced stocks. I would never advise buying for investment without intense due diligence but there is evidence to suppose that this market is not going to be falling until interest rates rise and stocks fall to levels where they become too good an opportunity to miss.
The middle market in the Day Sales seemed to be strong too. Good sell through rates and quality works from Post-Impressionist and Modern artists led to excellent prices for Henri Martin, Pablo Picasso’s lesser works and sculpture too.