As the modern and contemporary art market gears up for itsfirst bellwether events of 2011 (the big winter auctions in London, major fairsin Madrid and New York), confidence among buyers and sellers is surging. Themood is considerably brighter than it was a year ago, when optimism about arecovery was checked by unease about a possible double dip. Global economicconcerns remain, for sure, but recent months have seen spectacular sales notonly in modern and contemporary art but also in fields as diverse as Chineseceramics, antiquities, photographs and Old Masters. This is an art marketthat’s definitely gotten its swagger back.
“There was a period of a year and a half where everyone wasretrenching,” says Marc Spiegler, codirector of the Art Basel contemporary artfairs. “Galleries started doing fewer shows, they stopped printing invitations,people weren’t underwriting catalogues and museums exhibitions. But now I see alot of galleries taking new spaces, investing in the production of new worksand expanding their programs. They wouldn’t be doing that if they thought themarket was shaky.”
Things are certainly healthy at the top end. A week afterSotheby’s kicked off the November auctions in New York by selling a Modiglianipainting for $68.9 million, Phillips de Pury & Company hammered down AndyWarhol’s 1962 silkscreen painting Men in Her Life (featuring images of LizTaylor, Michael Todd, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fischer) for $63.3 million. Itwas the star lot of the auction house’s buzzy, $117 million inaugural CarteBlanche sale, organized by private dealer Philippe Ségalot, and the firstauction in Phillips’s shiny new Park Avenue digs.
Things picked up from there: $42.6 million for RoyLichtenstein’s Ohhh...Alright... at Christie’s; $35.3 million for Warhol’sCoca-Cola (4) [Large Coca-Cola] at Sotheby’s, bought by hedge fund billionaireSteven Cohen; two different Gerhard Richter paintings at Sotheby’s and one atChristie’s, each going for well north of $10 million. In 2009 Sotheby’s andChristie’s fall contemporary evening sales in New York totaled $208.5 millioncombined. This past autumn, that figure was $495.3 million.
The emergence of wealthy collectors from Asia, the MiddleEast and South America in recent years has deepened the pool of buyers,especially for top-end masterpieces, and many of them remained in the marketduring the recession. Americans, who had largely stopped spending, started toreturn 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 ofthe global buyers—the icon chasers who have dominated the very high end of themarket—there is a solid, affluent American collecting base that is looking tobuy up to the $10 million to $15 million range.”
The story was much the same in early December at Art BaselMiami Beach, where, Spiegler says, “Everyone reported that the Americans areback—museums were buying, private collectors were buying. And you hadcollectors showing interest in young artists, which in the previous two yearshadn’t been the case as people flew toward surer values, more establishedartists.”
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 byboth members of India’s leading art couple: a seven-foot-high marble tiffinlunch pail by Subodh Gupta ($400,000) and Bharti Kher’s Solarium Series I, anenchanting lifesize fiberglass tree with animal heads dangling like fruit($365,000, pictured). New York gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. sold Mark Bradford’s TheThroat Would Let Go, a massive canvas even by the standards of this nowfull-fledged superstar, for $375,000. And sales by Lehmann Maupin, also in NewYork, included a pair of large rhinestone-encrusted paintings by MickaleneThomas, featuring an odalisque-like “Mama Bush” figure on a sofa, for around$75,000 each.
The Swiss gallery Gmurzynska, whose dynamic black-and-whitebooth 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 1961for around $4.5 million. Hanging next to the Klein was Mark Rothko’s luminous1957 painting Saffron (asking price: $30 million), which was on reserve as ofpress time.
Over at the Design Miami fair, which moved from the DesignDistrict to a location adjacent to Art Basel, sales were also robust. Parisdealer Patrick Seguin nearly sold out his showstopping India Mahdavi–designedbooth filled with pieces by Jean Royère on the first day, including thesupersoft and elegant 1949 Ours Polaire sofa and pair of armchairs for$800,000. “Everybody seemed pretty happy,” says the show’s cofounder, CraigRobins. “Some of our best dealers had not attended the show for a couple ofyears, and they were back. And there was none of the negativity you sometimeshear 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. “Ayounger group of professionals are looking at art collecting as a pleasure butalso as something that can be an alternative asset class,” says MathiasRastorfer, co-owner of Galerie Gmurzynska. “We all thought the speculativebuying was gone, but it has reemerged in certain areas, and I believe it willincrease 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 yearsago.”
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 jpegbuying—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 moreinformation gathering.” Perhaps that’s one reason (technical problems wereanother) the inaugural online VIP Art Fair, held at the end of January, failedto deliver many significant sales, despite the high caliber of theparticipating galleries and loads of media attention.
Still, expectations are high for the Impressionist, modernand contemporary auctions beginning in London this week. Christie’sImpressionist and modern art sale on February 9 has a top estimate of $175.4million—the second-highest ever for the winter session—led by a Tahitian-periodstill life by Paul Gauguin with a $16 million high estimate. Sotheby’s isparticularly enthusiastic about its trove of 60 works from a European couplethat will be offered in a session billed as “Looking Closely: A PrivateCollection.” Highlighted by Francis Bacon’s 1964 triptych Three Studies for aPortrait of Lucian Freud (estimate: $11 million–$14 million), the group isexpected 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 marketfaces is supply. “Demand is there,” he says. “That’s a sign of a healthymarket.”