The Triumph of the Eternal
by Art Bug
It indeed is a market of masterpieces, as was evident in the contemporary art auctions at the duopoly's floors over the last month.
Thus, Melanie Gerlis, art market editor of the Art Newspaper, based in London, did not mince word, after Modigliani's La Belle Romaine, an alluring seated nude broke all records ever set by Modigliani and sold for $69 million. "It is a masterpiece market again," she said, recalling that in May 2008, for the first time, the New York auction season had seen contemporary art sales make more than the impressionists' sales. "That was due in part to the buying of new work by Roman Abramovich. But I don't think we are going to see that again."
Traditionally, pretty girls have always found a ready market, and if, on top of that, they are in the nude, they never lacked patrons. In fact, one of the stars of the November 9 Christie's sale estimated at $40m, over double its previous saleroom record of $16.3m is a Roy Lichtenstein titled Ohhh ... Alright ...
The painting shows a beautiful red-headed woman, telephone receiver cradled to her cheek, thought-bubble drifting from her temple. And Sarah Thornton, art market expert and author of Seven Days in the Art World was of the opinion that “it could easily go the Middle East (way). And it's totally palatable to the Asian and Russian markets, where figurative work is preferred. It seems the taste for pretty girls is fairly universal.”
Be that as it may, art pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are noting the emergence of a clear trend among collectors during the economic doldrums. While many still appear to have millions to spend, they are now buying work by established names, such as Modigliani or Matisse, an artist who also sold well at Sotheby's impressionist and modern art sale in Manhattan.
But how is it that within six to ten months of recovery, collectors are again getting more and more confident?
In fact, somebody in the know, like Melanie Gerlis still find it amazing“I find it amazing that these prices are being reached while budgets are being slashed almost everywhere, but the recession doesn't seem to have hit the top end of the market.” In the same breath though, she adds, “(But) if you are a serious collector, then you are not going to wait, because these works do not come up very often any more.”
That is where the answer lies. The very top of the art market is semi-detached from the movements of individual economies. And it is this layer that is going for a Modigliani or a Matisse.
Actually, this segment is bound up with the tastes and choices of a number of super-rich people in Europe and America and, increasingly, Russia, China and the Middle East. As Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christies puts it: “The market is not reliant on one single economy at any one time.”
Actually, what Gorvy alludes to is better explained by Sarah Thornton. At a time of economic uncertainty, art is a hedge against currency fluctuation. "If you buy a property in Mayfair, you will always have to sell it in pounds," says Thornton. "If you buy art, its value will be in whatever denomination you choose, depending on where you choose to put it on the block,”a lot like gold. Because art, like gold, is tangible, as opposed to, let's say shares and stocks.
That is exactly what is happeningwith the Asian buyers gaining in fast upon their counterparts on both sides of the Atlantic.
In pockets, at least, the very rich are spending on luxuries a category into which contemporary art arguably falls without apparent restraint. In Hong Kong last month, Sotheby's held an auction of fine wine that saw an Asian buyer purchase three bottles of 1869 Château Lafite for $232,0s00 each, a new record. Even more surprisingly, cases of wine that retail for $17,000 in New York were selling at the auction for $70,000.
Meanwhile, the tastes of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern billionaires are increasingly embracing contemporary art.
Thornton has noticed a trend among this new breed of the emerging super-rich. "They tend to start by collecting art of their own nations, whether Middle Eastern, Russian or Chinese. But perhaps as their own businesses become global businesses their predilections shift towards contemporary art."
Having the "right" contemporary art is therefore a totem of a certain kind of lifestyle, a badge of elite wealth. Gorvy says the numbers of collectors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China "increased dramatically" over the past two years.
It was partly because of this international nature, spanning many economies at once, that the art market recovered from its big dip of late 2008 (in the wake of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers) faster than most had expected. "It took six months, and people expected it to be four to five years," said Gorvy.
The speed of recovery itself breeds confidence, so that sellers who had been anxious to consign works of art to the saleroom two years ago are now returning to the market. There is, nonetheless, a different feel to the auction rooms than there was mid-decade.
Speculation on new names is down; tried and tested artists with impeccable records are on the up.
According to Gorvy, the top of the contemporary art market is “conservative” and “focused on quality”. He explains: “There is no difference from the move to buying gold, in a way: people are being drawn to things whose value is tried and tested.”
Whereas the boom up to 2006 and 2007 saw speculation on new names, buyers are now attracted to 20th-century art history.
“Pop is the overriding movement at the moment,” says Gorvy. “Warhol is huge, and Lichtenstein is globally popular.”
The star of Christie's New York sale last month was a Roy Lichtenstein canvas. The star at Sotheby's was a Coca-Cola bottle by Andy Warhol with an estimate of $20m-$25m.
Part of the point is that pop art can transcend cultural boundaries and appeal to an international audience; the art embodies clear, simple messages. “It is very instant in terms of understanding,” said Gorvy.
Sotheby's said five bidders had competed for the Modigliani nude, pushing up the price of the painting, which is one of a series created in 1917, for its eventual anonymous buyer well beyond the artist's previous auction record set earlier this year in Paris.
"It was a great night for Modigliani... that price represents over four times the price realised when it was sold at Sotheby's in 1999,” a spokesman for the auction house said. Gerlis said she was not surprised by the new record, since no Modigliani nude had come under the hammer for seven years. “Nudes always sell well anyway, and this was a very pretty, almond-eyed lady," she said.
The boom in demand for this kind of lot has been prompted by a spreading recognition that the great works by masters of the late 19th century and early 20th century the gems of the Belle Epoque are gradually disappearing from the market.
And that is where the true answer to the enigma of the art-market's fast recovery lies. Top-end buyers and top-end artists have finally forged the much-awaited link on the floors.