Slow sales at New York art auctions may actually be healthy for the market

NEW YORK (AP) – The sagging demand for high-end art at the fall auctions could signal a return to saner prices in the market after the frenzied buying of the last few years.

Art experts say the lower prices and unsold works at Sotheby’s and Christie’s over the past two weeks may be a healthy development.

“The truth is that for serious collectors with vision and some cash, this is an opportune time to buy important works of art for more reasonable prices,” said Jo Backer Laird, a former general counsel at Christie’s, now with the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.

In contrast to previous years when it’s been standing room only, the auction houses had empty seats at their sales of impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art.

Many works failed to attract even a single buyer  among them, Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait, estimated at $40 million – or sold below their estimates.

Still, the picture wasn’t totally bleak. Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition sold for $60 million, setting a record for the artist and for any Russian artwork sold at auction.

And while prices were down 25 percent to 35 percent overall, according to art consultant David Nash, there were some very significant sales, including $20.8 million for Juan Gris’ Book, Pipe and Glasses and $18 million for Pablo Picasso’s Two Figures (Marie-Therese and her sister reading).

The fall auctions serve as a barometer of the art market because they attract buyers from all over the world. For the two-week period, Sotheby’s reported taking in a total of $411.5 million, under its low estimate of $688.4 million, and selling 448 lots out of 866. Christie’s reported a total of $374.5 million, below its $686.7 million low estimate. It sold 630 items out of 990.

To safeguard against risk, both houses lowered guarantees _ an undisclosed price promised to sellers whether their work sells or not.

“In light of the financial turmoil, Sotheby’s and Christie’s did a very good job of persuading sellers to recognize the climate in the market and put on much lower reserves than they had agreed to,” said Nash of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery. The reserve is the lowest undisclosed price the consignor agrees to sell a work.

He called the sales “quite encouraging” and said they demonstrated “there’s still quite an active market.”

Megan Fox Kelly, who runs a Madison Avenue art advisory firm, said the auction results marked a correction in price levels and collectors’ expectations rather than a “dramatic or disastrous downturn.”

“When a very sophisticated Yves Klein [see related article on this Web site] sells for $21 million and a beautiful John Currin draws excited bidding that pushed it past its high estimate, we see a level of strength in the market and a level of discernment and connoisseurship among collectors,” she said.

Prices have risen sharply for contemporary art over the past two years, with Bacon’s Triptych, 1976 selling for $86.2 million to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in May and a group of works by Damien Hirst fetching almost $200 million at a London auction in September.

According to Nash, that frenzied buying has kept away a number of serious collectors such as financier Eli Broad and Gap clothing founder Don Fisher, who have jumped back in and were seen at the recent auctions.

“I’m very impressed with the way the market has stabilized,” he said. “It’s at a lower level but it’s a real market.”

Nash said the number of buyers has shrunk considerably since last spring. Nonetheless, he noted that $470 million worth of impressionist and modern paintings changed hands at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. And while many prices were lower, “in a way this is a healthy development,” he said. “I think that the excesses of the last two years have really evaporated.”

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