Off the Record


Libby Banks | May 07, 2010

Why do art auctions continue to beat records despite the recession?

The state of the global economy may still be unstable, but things are just peachy for art auctioneers. The spring Impressionist and Modern art sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s that took place in New York this week are often see as an indicator for the luxury goods world, setting the tone and tastes for months to come. Despite a lingering recession and art’s often substantial prices, these auctions exceeded expectations with record amounts of money changing hands. Christie’s star lot, the 1932 Picasso Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, went for a record-smashing $106.5 million.

This is the second time in four months—despite the recession—that the record for a work at auction has been topped. The Picasso beat the $104.3m fetched by Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I in February at Sotheby’s, London. Until the Giacometti sale, the previous record, Sotheby’s sale of Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, in 2004 for $104.1m, had lasted for six years, despite most of that being boom times. The art world, it would seem, thrives in recession.

Although the Sotheby’s Wednesday sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York auction lacked the headline-making pieces of its Christie’s counterpart, it also did jolly well, beating expectations and taking a total $195.7 million. The big seller was a Matisse, Bouquet de Fleurs Pour le Quatorze Juillet, from 1919, which was expected to sell for $18 million to $25 million and sold for $28.6 million to an unidentified buyer.

Now seems to be a very good time to put a masterpiece on the block. The economic hangover means that auction catalogues aren’t crammed with goods and the limited number means that buyers are primed to handover whatever takes to get a truly important work.

What’s also changed in many auctions is the lack of hyped new talent. Where the spring sales were once regarded as a hunting ground for the next big thing, the big sellers this year were all classic and ultra-safe bets.

International interest in these auctions is also taking effect. Sotheby’s had paddle requests from 52 countries this year, up from 30 two years ago. Asian phone bidders purchased four of the sale’s priciest lots, including works by Claude Monet, Amedeo Modigliani and Salvador Dalí. This is perhaps less down to a sudden passion for Western art, than a growing recognition that art is a highly liquid and mobile investment worldwide. And if the industry continues at this pace, you can bet the Picasso will be knocked off its record-breaking perch before the year is out.

Reuters – 6 May 10
New York Times – 6 May 10
The Art Newspaper – 28 April 10

Analysis | Arts