Art's New Winners and Losers
Sales are rising, but the recovery is leaving some artists behind. Why Renoir and Calder are up, and Munch and Hirst are down
Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2010
By KELLY CROW
"The bidding has started up again and prices are rising. Now, as the dust settles from the art-market upheaval of the last few years, a new art landscape is emerging.
The New Art Market's Ups and Downs
The major spring auctions wrapped up this week in New York with sales that nearly tripled last year's totals. A few artists appeared unaffected by the recent ups and downs of the market. A Picasso painting sold for $106.5 million, setting an auction record, and Andy Warhol's "Self Portrait" sold for $32.5 million, more than twice its high estimate.
But the playing field has been transformed by recession, and dozens of other top artists have been boosted or derailed by the boom-and-bust cycle. Some of the biggest stars from the art market's peak, such as Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, have been largely absent from auctions recently.
On the rise are Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Salvador Dali, names that a few years ago were unfashionable in some art circles. In recent years, some Western buyers dismissed their work as passé —crowd-pleasing but uninteresting. New art collectors, however, tend to gravitate to the European Impressionists that are pretty and accessible. Newly wealthy Asian buyers have been bidding up Renoirs and Monets.
See a graphic about art's new winners and losers.
Market fluctuations can spark larger shifts in art-world taste. The Gagosian Gallery, a leading dealer of modern and contemporary art, mounted an exhibit of late-period Monets in New York this month—a move that the gallery says would have been unlikely a few years ago.
New York's chief auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's International, say prices for any artist are heavily contingent upon the whims of supply. It's a rare occurrence that a seller consigns a work as important as Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust," last week's $106.5 million sale.
Still, a sweep of the spring auction results reveals fresh clues about which artists collectors feel more, or less, confident in now. "Before the crisis, people were buying everything," says David Nahmad, a modern-art dealer with galleries in New York and London. "Now, they're more selective."
Pablo Picasso: 'Woman with a cat sitting in a chair,' priced to sell for $15 million, sold for $18 million at Christie's.
In all, Sotheby's and Christie's International brought in about $1.1 billion combined from their semiannual New York sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art, up from $408.8 million last May but down from their $1.4 billion peak two seasons ago.
As the auctions wrap up, here's a look at who's soaring and who's struggling in the new art market.
Dealers say Renoir's soft-focus depictions of Victorian women and children are a favorite of Asian collectors, who have begun buying up iconic pieces from the Western canon. They're starting, as many new buyers do, with the broadly appealing Impressionists. Renoir's prices are lower than those of older peers like Monet.
Last November in New York, a Japanese collector paid Sotheby's $2.8 million for Renoir's "Woman with a White Hat," and minutes later a Chinese collector bidding over the telephone paid $962,500 for his "Still Life with Apples and Pears."
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Claude Monet: Last week, Sotheby's sold 'The Effect of Spring at Giverny,' for $15.2 million, the seventh-highest price ever paid for a Monet at auction.
The master of Impressionism seems to sell best during the uncertain days of a new auction cycle, when collectors prefer to stick with classics. At the start of the last market swell in 2005 and 2006, at least 18 of Monet's speckled pastorals sold for more than their high asking prices at major evening auctions, according to Art Research Technologies, a firm that tracks auction sales. On May 5, Sotheby's got $15.2 million for "The Effect of Spring at Giverny," the seventh-highest Monet to ever sell at auction. An Asian collector bidding over the telephone got that work.
Prices for Monet's paintings dated after 1905 are also expected to benefit from the high-profile show that opened this month at the Gagosian Gallery. Last spring, around 100,000 people visited the gallery's show of late Picassos, and dealers have subsequently credited the show with increasing demand for Picasso's later works.
Alberto Giacometti: Number of his works that sold for over $20 million last week in New York: 3.
This onetime favorite of European collectors has gone global, with bidders from the U.S. and Russia joining in and pushing up his asking prices, dealers say.
Three months ago, Sotheby's in London sold his "Walking Man I" for $104.3 million, a record at the time for a work of art at auction. The buzz from that sale gave confidence to bidders during this latest round in New York: On May 4, Christie's sold Giacometti's bust of his brother, "Big Thin Head," to art adviser Guy Bennett for $53.2 million, over its $35 million high estimate.
The Philadelphia sculptor of kinetic abstract sculptures has floated above the recession. He had a banner year in 2009, with a record $41.5 million worth of his art selling at auction, according to Artnet, a firm that monitors sales. Six of his priciest pieces sold during the doldrums, including the 1934 mobile, "Five Pieces of Wood," which Sotheby's in London sold last June for $4.2 million. On Wednesday, another pair of mobiles sold for a combined $5.2 million.
American collectors say part of the reason for the strong sales was that the artist had been undervalued for too long, a fact that became clear as other art prices dropped. Compared to Jeff Koons's $25.7 million "Balloon Flower (Magenta)," Calder's dangling wire pieces still appear to be a good value, dealers say.
Rarity helps, especially in a recession. Between 2005 and 2009, nine works by this Pop pioneer wound up in the auction houses' major evening sales and they all sold, for roughly $13.3 million combined. That same number of pieces hit the evening sales this past week, thanks largely to a consignment of pieces owned by the late author Michael Crichton.
It proved a bonanza: Johns's "Flag" sold to New York art adviser Michael Altman for $28.6 million, above its $15 million high estimate. The Crichton works may also have spurred other collectors to offer up their pieces by Johns, including "Figure O," which sold for $4.1 million.
The graffiti-influenced 1980s artist is the recovery's comeback kid. After his brightly colored paintings pushed above $14 million in early 2007, collectors watched his prices plummet.
Now, Basquiat's asking prices have dropped to between $2 million and $6 million and American Baby Boomers appear to be rushing back in to take advantage of the lower price tags. On Tuesday, Christie's asked at least $3.5 million for his "Man Struck by Lightning—2 Witnesses" from 1982 but got $4.8 million for it.
Basquiat's 1983 depiction of a saxophone player, "Untitled (Stardust)," also sparked a dogged bidding war at Sotheby's on Wednesday, ultimately selling to a woman in the salesroom for $7.2 million. The piece was set to sell for up to $6 million.
Kees Van Dongen
Last fall, this Dutch master of Fauvism seemed poised to enjoy a surge when Sotheby's in New York sold his creamy spare portrait, "Young Arab," for a record $13.8 million. Russian buyers were flocking then to his emerald-and-navy portraits of women. Since then, however, Russian collectors seem to have shifted back to homegrown favorites with a similar palette, like Natalia Goncharova, and U.S. buyers haven't stepped in to fill the void.
Sotheby's got $3.7 million for Van Dongen's "Woman with a Hat of Roses" on May 5, but another Van Dongen consigned to that sale was withdrawn by the seller at the last minute. In all, seven paintings by the artist have gone unsold this auction season, up from three last year, according to Art Research Technologies.
Sometimes collectors get spooked by an artist, even one firmly ensconced in the art-history textbooks. Between 2005 and 2006, at least 23 paintings by the French artist sold within or above their estimates at the auction houses' major evening sales. These included a lush view of "Two Fruit Baskets" that sold in November 2006 for $8.5 million.
Demand took a sharp turn last fall, however, after Sotheby's got no bids for Bonnard's "Nude Profile," which was priced to sell for at least $1.25 million. On May 5, another Bonnard went unsold, this time a Parisian street scene from 1904, "The Boulevard Outside: The Corner of Clichy Boulevard and Douai Street." Christie's sold a Bonnard, "Deadlock or Lane (Le Cannet)," from the Brody collection for $842,500 on May 4.
Mr. Nahmad said newer buyers may not be as familiar with Bonnard's oeuvre but added that the artist was more likely suffering from "bad luck."
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Edvard Munch: Number of his works that failed to sell at auction between 2007 and 2009: 0. Number of works that failed to sell this spring: 3.
Do collectors love this Norwegian artist when he's not screaming? Weeks after Lehman Brothers floundered in 2008, Munch's "Vampire" sold at Sotheby's in New York for $38.1 million. The work, depicting a red-haired woman hovering over a man in a black suit, was considered a masterpiece. It was also replete with the artist's dark and twisted signature imagery.
Since then, Munch works featuring happier subject matter have stumbled at auction. These include "Fertility," the $25 million field-couple scene that failed to sell at Christie's. The following night, Munch's 1916-17 image of a blue-eyed young girl sporting a bow in her hair, "Nude Half Figure," was expected to sell at Sotheby's for at least $1.6 million. It stalled at $1.4 million.
DAMIEN HIRST: In 2008, $270.7 million worth of his art sold at auction. In 2009: $18.3 million.
The British artist who famously sold off $200.8 million worth of his own art at Sotheby's in London hasn't turned up much at major auctions since. Katherine Jentleson, head researcher with Art Research Technologies, said the milestone Sotheby's sale "severely diminished demand" for his works.
The hiatus may serve his market in the long run, since the appearance of rarity tends to whet collectors' appetites. But for now, his switch from ubiquity to virtual absence is hard to miss. In this latest round of sales, he only had one piece on offer in the important evening sales held by Sotheby's and Christie's. Sotheby's got $782,500 for his 2006 "The Trees the House," which uses butterflies to recreate the look of a stained-glass window. Two years ago, his major butterfly pieces were selling for as much as $4 million a piece. A spokeswoman for the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Mr. Hirst, said his paintings and sculptures are selling well privately, including a show last fall in New York that "sold out."
During the peak years of 2006 and 2008, prices for Mr. Prince's work soared. In 2008, the artist's works sold for a combined $68.3 million at auction, but signs of trouble began to emerge: That year, at least nine pieces sold for less that their low asking prices, indicating that buyers and sellers were no longer in agreement on where his auction prices should be set. Last year, his auction sales total fell to $11.7 million, according to Artnet, likely an indication that fewer sellers wanted to risk offering Princes that might not sell. A spokeswoman for the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Mr. Prince, says the artist's prices and sales are fine.
Mr. Prince has one group of influential supporters: museum curators. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently mounted major Prince shows. Christie's sold one of his paintings, "Ranting and Raving," on Tuesday for $722,500, just over its $600,000 low estimate.
Correction & Amplification:
Gagosian Gallery represents the artist Richard Prince. A previous version of the article incorrectly said the Barbara Gladstone Gallery represented Mr. Prince."
Write to Kelly Crow at email@example.com
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