Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Art Market: High hopes for Picasso

It’s all about Brody in New York next week. As the Impressionist and Modern art sales get under way, the high note is Christie’s sale, on May 4, of the collection of Frances Lasker Brody, the Los Angeles-based collector and philanthropist who died in November. Christie’s wrested this highly desirable consignment from Sotheby’s by giving an overall guarantee that is rumoured to be around the collection’s $150m upper estimate. The star lot, Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932), is looking for $70m-$90m alone, and the buzz is that it could go even higher. This painting, along with Giacometti’s portrait bust of his brother Diego (est. $25m-$35m), carry third-party guarantees, meaning that Christie’s has outside investors underwriting the lots.
Sotheby’s, however, has only one guaranteed lot in its May 5 evening sale, a Picasso portrait from 1965 (est $8m-$12m) that bears the “irrevocable bid” symbol. The reappearance of guarantees – on which both auction houses lost heavily during the 2008 recession – is a sign of renewed confidence in the art market.
Le doute painting by Felix Youssoupoff
‘Le doute’ by Felix Youssoupoff
Prince Felix Youssoupoff has gone down in history as one of the co-assassins of Rasputin, the “mad monk”. After the revolution, Youssoupoff was exiled and, during a stay in Corsica in 1929, despite being untaught artistically, produced 15 caricatures illustrating themes such as jealousy, doubt, indifference. After his death, the group was dispersed at auction, with two going to the French crooner Charles Aznavour. Now the French Art Deco specialist L’Arc en Seine is showing eight of the drawings as part of France’s Year of Russia celebrations. They are priced at €20,000 ($26,000) each, but gallery co-owner Raphael Ortiz says he is hoping to find a single buyer to keep them together. Recent sales of Russian art have produced a mixed picture. The ash cloud put a dampener on proceedings both in New York, where Sotheby’s and Christie’s were selling paintings and works of art, and London, where Phillips de Pury staged its much-hyped Bric sale. The New York sales were reportedly sparsely attended, but Sotheby’s sale totalled $13.6m, well within expectations. The strongest bidding was for Fabergé, which, with its evocation of the glories of a lost era, continues to exert a powerful grip on Russian collectors. Sotheby’s scored a new auction high of $986,500 for the Russian-born surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew, for a portrait of the socialite Ruth Ford. Christie’s smaller Russian sale made just under $5m, and again Fabergé did well: an obsidian model of a crow flew over its $10,000-$12,000 estimate to $98,500.
At Phillips de Pury in London, the Russian segment of the Bric sale raised £2.3m ($3.5m), almost in line with its target of £2.2m (presale estimates don’t include premium; results do) although only 46 per cent of the lots found buyers. But some good prices were set; top lot was Eric Bulatov’s “Entrance-No Entrance” (1994-95), which made £715,250 (est. £350,000-£450,000), while a satire of Russian official art, “Meeting between Solzhenitsyn and Böll at Rostropovich’s Country House’’ (1972) by Russian duo Komar & Melamid, raced away at £657,250, well over its £100,000-£150,000 estimate.
One of the biggest art scandals of recent years concerns the dealer Lawrence Salander, who last month pleaded guilty to stealing some $120m from customers and investors. New York has been transfixed by the Salander story: how the high-flying dealer, operating from an Italianate palace in Manhattan, once claimed he could “corner the market in Renaissance art” but left a trail of victims, including tennis champion John McEnroe, after his gallery filed for bankruptcy in 2007. Salander, 60, is facing up to 18 years in prison.
Many works of art are still held by the bankruptcy court and will be sold at some future date; the art advisers Gurr Johns are handling the deal, which is believed to be going to Christie’s; both firms declined to comment. Meanwhile Stair Galleries of New York is selling ornate and eclectic items from Salandar’s Manhattan townhouse next Sunday: 244 lots of furniture (such as an Italian walnut credenza at $400-$800), Rococo-style chandeliers, Chinese porcelain vases and a carved sandstone Buddha head ($500-$700).
“We have kept our estimates very low,” says president Colin Stair, “And we’re expecting a tremendous amount of interest. Bankruptcy auctions are like blood in the water.” Viewing continues this week and the whole group is estimated at up to $200,000.
Volcanic ash prevented London dealer Johnny van Haeften from getting to the Dorotheum, in Vienna, for its Old Master paintings sale, but not from buying Frans Francken II’s “Man Choosing between Virtue and Vice”. Estimated at just €400,000-€500,000, the opulent early 17th-century work shows the human soul on its journey to heaven – or hell. “I didn’t even start bidding on the telephone until it got to €2m, and there were lots of people against me, German and Russian I think, plus two of my own clients,” says Van Haeften. He paid more than €7m for the painting, which he still hasn’t seen. “But colleagues have vouched for it,” he says. The price sets a new record for the artist and any Old Master sold in Austria.

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