Works by Francis Bacon, Cézanne and Roy Lichtenstein expected to fetch high prices next month when Sotheby’s and Christies hold their major spring sales, says Colin Gleadell.
New York is bracing itself for another spending spree of at least $1 billion (£657 million) next month when Sotheby’s and Christies hold their major spring sales of Impressionist and modern art, followed by contemporary art.
But if you look closely, it is clear the lion’s share is likely to go to contemporary art – ie, art from the Fifties to the present. In a trend increasingly apparent since the latter half of 2010, the once dominant sales of earlier Impressionist and modern art (ie, from the 1860s to the Forties and including late Picassos) have been falling behind to the point at which, last autumn in New York, they fetched only half as much as the contemporary sales.
Next month, the swingometer is predicted to stay that way as the first week of Impressionist and modern art sales, without any $100 million Munchs or Picassos, is estimated to bring only $383 million, while the contemporary sales in the second week are looking at over $700 million.
The trend appears to be particular to New York. In London, the swing to contemporary has not happened because there is not the same massive input of American abstract expressionist and pop art. Here, the Impressionist sales, with their strong contingent of Russian, Middle Eastern and Asian buyers, still rule the roost and even outstripped New York earlier this year for the first time.
The different contrast between the two markets in New York is clearest at the top end, where only one earlier work, a still life of apples on a table by Cézanne, comparable to any of his highest-selling still-life paintings, is estimated at $25 million. In the contemporary sales there are seven $25 million plus paintings including works by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Barnett Newman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein.
This, of course, is not to say that good Impressionist and modern art is worth less than good contemporary art. Cézanne’s Card Players sold privately to the state of Qatar last year for a reported $250 million, while Steve Wynn has finally sold Le Rêve, the Picasso he stuck his elbow through, now repaired, for $150 million to hedge fund supremo Steven A Cohen. It’s just that the auctioneers are finding it harder to come by.
Half the value of Sotheby’s main evening Impressionist and modern art sale, for instance, comprises works that have come from deceased estates. The most impressive is a 200-piece collection worth $65 million belonging to the vacuum-cleaner designer Alex Lewyt, who died in 1988, and his wife, Elizabeth, who died last December. This includes two of Sotheby’s top lots – the simultaneously Old Masterly and modern Cézanne still life, and L’Amazone, a swaggering, vampish portrait of a French baroness in her riding regalia by Modigliani, estimated at $20 to $30 million.
With the top Picasso of the season, the Child with a Dove that was on loan to the National Gallery, selling privately through Christie’s to the state of Qatar for £50 million, the top Picasso at auction is one of four known unique painted metal sculptures of the 19-year-old model Sylvette David ($12 to $18 million at Sotheby’s) whom Picasso drew and painted incessantly in 1954 when he was 69. Sotheby’s also has a strong selection of Rodin bronzes from one collection, including a choice rare and early lifetime bronze cast of The Thinker ($8 to $12 million) complete with the plaque Rodin attached to it to signify that he had overseen the casting process.
After last November’s Impressionist sales fell short of their target in New York, estimates have generally been kept within reason. None the less, a handful of works are set to fetch record prices. At Christie’s a portrait of a pastry chef by Chaim Soutine is guaranteed at $16 to $22 million, which is in record territory. Similarly, André Derain’s portrait of Madame Matisse in a kimono carries the highest estimate ever for the artist, at $15 to $20 million.
At the same time, however, charts compiled by market analyst Robin Duthy show that while prices at the top end of the market continue to rise, the middle and lower orders have seen falls. The shadow of the Japanese speculative bubble of the late Eighties still lingers. A radiant, symbolist still life by Odilon Redon at Christie’s, estimated at $500,000, sold for nearly double that amount in 1990. A reclining nude by Japanese favourite, Renoir, cost $2.3 million back in 1989, and is now estimated at $800,000. While prices remain this subdued, supply will continue to be a problem.