Thursday, April 24, 2008

For Sale: Art and Optimism

ARTmostfierce was just discussing this topic while doing a Eric LoPresti studio visit sponsored by Phillips de Pury last Wednesday.Please enjoy this article. I had not stopped! There is so much to talk about in the upcoming days including a post about Edgar Martins, Eric LoPresti and the unique Zoe Strauss.In the meantime enjoy this NY Times article by Carol Vogel

Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Self-Portrait” (1976) is expected to sell for between $25 million and $35 million at Christie’s New York.
Published: May 4, 2008
By Carol Vogel

YOU can’t help but wonder just how many of the smartly dressed people sitting night after night at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury over the next two weeks will be serious bidders and how many will be voyeurs hoping to witness an implosion of the multibillion dollar art market.

Auction Season’s Highs and Lows For years collectors and the news media have been speculating about when prices would finally top out. Spring sales estimates don’t suggest pessimism. The auction houses clearly hope that things will play out as they did three months ago in London, when, despite global economic queasiness, a Francis Bacon triptych sold for $51.6 million. Now two Bacon triptychs, whose owners no doubt want to capitalize on that high, are going on the block, at estimates of $25 million to $35 million (Christie’s, shown above) and a whopping $70 million (Sotheby’s).

But despite the bullish prices, this auction season feels different. Economic anxiety has deepened in recent months, with the proposed bailout of Bear Stearns in March, continuing stock-market gyrations and increasing signs that we either are in or about to be in a recession.

And the art market has its own problems. Sotheby’s stock price is roughly half what it was last October, and its latest annual report shows that the amount of money owed to the house more than doubled to $835 million last year. Hoping to keep the bubble afloat, Sotheby’s has been giving buyers more time to hand over the money for their purchases. (It is the only publicly traded company of the three houses.)

But despite it all, sales estimates at the auction houses are more robust than ever.

Aside from the Bacon triptychs (to be auctioned at Christie’s on May 13 and at Sotheby’s on May 14), Sotheby’s is selling a coveted Cubist painting by Fernand Léger at its Impressionist and modern art sale on Wednesday. It is estimated to fetch $35 million to $45 million.

Christie’s boasts some splashy offerings too. A rare Monet will be auctioned on Tuesday, and next week’s sale includes a strong sampling of Pop Art by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are also selling 1950s red-and-yellow Rothkos that they predict will bring $35 million to $45 million each.

This season’s sellers include the television producer Douglas S. Cramer; the newsprint magnate Peter Brant; and Helga Lauffs of Germany, who is selling pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Mr. Wesselmann and Donald Judd after terminating a long-term loan to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld.

To land consignments like these, auction houses have given most of these collectors guarantees, an undisclosed sum promised to the seller regardless of the outcome of a sale. Obviously this poses a considerable risk for the houses. Whether the gamble will pay off is anyone’s guess.

Seasoned dealers and collectors are guessing that market cracks will emerge first in sales of less expensive works, that this is the season of the great divide between the Best and the Rest.

Auction house executives are busy talking up the soaring numbers of Asian, Russian and Middle Eastern collectors, trophy hunting with cash to burn. They also cite the recent $600 million private sale of art from the estate of the dealer Ileana Sonnabend — proof, they say, that there is still enough money out there and that no price is too high.

Yet the creative business maneuvers adopted by the auction houses to land big consignments and encourage buyers speak of desperation. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are at the point where they are often willing to forgo profits just to win commissions and beat out the other on sales totals. In addition to the guarantees granted to sellers, which in some cases this season are said to be even higher than the works’ sales estimates, the two companies are buying works of art outright, advancing sellers money ahead of the sales and in rare cases even becoming involved in sellers’ real estate transactions.

These confidential deals are so abundant that it is difficult to judge whether a strong evening sales result is a smoke screen. But if profits dry up, such face-saving strategies can’t last forever.

For now auction houses are playing up the suspense. “We really won’t know till the night,” said Tobias Meyer, director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide. “Even in this market collectors are tortured by the idea that they could miss an opportunity.”

Risky Play?

TITLE “Le Pont du Cheminde Fer à Argenteuil,” 1873
ESTIMATE $35 million

SOME dealers must have gulped when they saw that the most expensive painting in Christie’s May 6 Impressionist and modern art auction is a Monet, not a modern work. In a sense Christie’s seems to be swimming against the tide. (The most expensive work in Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern art is a 1912-13 Léger, “Étude Pour ‘La Femme en Bleu,’” which carries a $35 million to $45 million estimate.) Yet the Monet, “Le Pont du Chemin de Fer à Argenteuil,” depicting two puffing locomotives, was considered unabashedly modern in its time. In 1988 Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate, sold it for $12.6 million at Christie’s in London to the Nahmads, dealers with galleries in New York and London.

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