As the modern and contemporary art market gears up for its first bellwether events of 2011 (the big winter auctions in London, major fairs in Madrid and New York), confidence among buyers and sellers is surging. The mood is considerably brighter than it was a year ago, when optimism about a recovery was checked by unease about a possible double dip. Global economic concerns remain, for sure, but recent months have seen spectacular sales not only in modern and contemporary art but also in fields as diverse as Chinese ceramics, antiquities, photographs and Old Masters. This is an art market that’s definitely gotten its swagger back.
“There was a period of a year and a half where everyone was retrenching,” says Marc Spiegler, codirector of the Art Basel contemporary art fairs. “Galleries started doing fewer shows, they stopped printing invitations, people weren’t underwriting catalogues and museums exhibitions. But now I see a lot of galleries taking new spaces, investing in the production of new works and expanding their programs. They wouldn’t be doing that if they thought the market was shaky.”
Things are certainly healthy at the top end. A week after Sotheby’s kicked off the November auctions in New York by selling a Modigliani painting for $68.9 million, Phillips de Pury & Company hammered down Andy Warhol’s 1962 silkscreen painting Men in Her Life (featuring images of Liz Taylor, Michael Todd, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fischer) for $63.3 million. It was the star lot of the auction house’s buzzy, $117 million inaugural Carte Blanche sale, organized by private dealer Philippe Ségalot, and the first auction in Phillips’s shiny new Park Avenue digs.
Things picked up from there: $42.6 million for Roy Lichtenstein’s Ohhh...Alright... at Christie’s; $35.3 million for Warhol’s Coca-Cola (4) [Large Coca-Cola] at Sotheby’s, bought by hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen; two different Gerhard Richter paintings at Sotheby’s and one at Christie’s, each going for well north of $10 million. In 2009 Sotheby’s and Christie’s fall contemporary evening sales in New York totaled $208.5 million combined. This past autumn, that figure was $495.3 million.
The emergence of wealthy collectors from Asia, the Middle East and South America in recent years has deepened the pool of buyers, especially for top-end masterpieces, and many of them remained in the market during the recession. Americans, who had largely stopped spending, started to return last year and are now back in full force. “It’s a very healthy market,” says Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s. “On top of the global buyers—the icon chasers who have dominated the very high end of the market—there is a solid, affluent American collecting base that is looking to buy up to the $10 million to $15 million range.”
The story was much the same in early December at Art Basel Miami Beach, where, Spiegler says, “Everyone reported that the Americans are back—museums were buying, private collectors were buying. And you had collectors showing interest in young artists, which in the previous two years hadn’t been the case as people flew toward surer values, more established artists.”
One sign of confidence was the number of large works, especially sculptures, that dealers brought to the fair. Hauser & Wirth, which has galleries in Zurich, London and New York, sold large sculptures by both members of India’s leading art couple: a seven-foot-high marble tiffin lunch pail by Subodh Gupta ($400,000) and Bharti Kher’s Solarium Series I, an enchanting lifesize fiberglass tree with animal heads dangling like fruit ($365,000, pictured). New York gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. sold Mark Bradford’s The Throat Would Let Go, a massive canvas even by the standards of this now full-fledged superstar, for $375,000. And sales by Lehmann Maupin, also in New York, included a pair of large rhinestone-encrusted paintings by Mickalene Thomas, featuring an odalisque-like “Mama Bush” figure on a sofa, for around $75,000 each.%new_page%
The Swiss gallery Gmurzynska, whose dynamic black-and-white booth was custom-designed by Zaha Hadid, sold four works by Yves Klein, including one of the artist’s signature IKB 93 blue pigment paintings from 1961 for around $4.5 million. Hanging next to the Klein was Mark Rothko’s luminous 1957 painting Saffron (asking price: $30 million), which was on reserve as of press time.
Over at the Design Miami fair, which moved from the Design District to a location adjacent to Art Basel, sales were also robust. Paris dealer Patrick Seguin nearly sold out his showstopping India Mahdavi–designed booth filled with pieces by Jean Royère on the first day, including the supersoft and elegant 1949 Ours Polaire sofa and pair of armchairs for $800,000. “Everybody seemed pretty happy,” says the show’s cofounder, Craig Robins. “Some of our best dealers had not attended the show for a couple of years, and they were back. And there was none of the negativity you sometimes hear from dealers—what that means is they were selling.”
We’re even seeing a return of the kind of investment-driven, speculative buying that had largely disappeared for the last two years. “A younger group of professionals are looking at art collecting as a pleasure but also as something that can be an alternative asset class,” says Mathias Rastorfer, co-owner of Galerie Gmurzynska. “We all thought the speculative buying was gone, but it has reemerged in certain areas, and I believe it will increase in 2011.”
So are we headed back to 2007 all over again? Not quite. We’re not in “a silly market,” as Spiegler puts it, where everything sells. Rastorfer adds that “everyone is more realistic than they were a few years ago.”
The big difference between then and now, says Meyer, is that “the market in 2007 was less discriminating. Back then you had a lot of jpeg buying—people just making decisions based on seeing something on the Internet. I think that people don’t do that anymore. There’s more education and more information gathering.” Perhaps that’s one reason (technical problems were another) the inaugural online VIP Art Fair, held at the end of January, failed to deliver many significant sales, despite the high caliber of the participating galleries and loads of media attention.
Still, expectations are high for the Impressionist, modern and contemporary auctions beginning in London this week. Christie’s Impressionist and modern art sale on February 9 has a top estimate of $175.4 million—the second-highest ever for the winter session—led by a Tahitian-period still life by Paul Gauguin with a $16 million high estimate. Sotheby’s is particularly enthusiastic about its trove of 60 works from a European couple that will be offered in a session billed as “Looking Closely: A Private Collection.” Highlighted by Francis Bacon’s 1964 triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud (estimate: $11 million–$14 million), the group is expected to fetch more than $70 million. “That’s gonna go crazy,” says Meyer. “It’s what the market hasn’t seen, and the quality is incredible.”
Looking ahead, Meyer says the biggest problem the market faces is supply. “Demand is there,” he says. “That’s a sign of a healthy market.”