Savvy auction sellers -- the ones who demanded money up front from Sotheby's and Christie's -- should be laughing all the way to the bank. But in the rest of the art world, the next two weeks will be particularly stressful as impressionist, modern and contemporary art valued at more than half a billion US dollars goes on the market in the important fall sales.
This season's splashy auction catalogs are packed with high-priced paintings, drawings and sculptures: one of Monet's famous images of the Houses of Parliament in London, a Gauguin from the artist's Tahitian period, the first painting in Mondrian's legendary Boogie-Woogie series, early photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman. Total estimates for sales are higher than they have been since May 1990, the last big auction season before the art market crashed six months later.
Some works come from estates, others from well-known collectors who saw the high prices at last spring's sales and are betting the market's upward spiral will continue.
Competition between Sotheby's and Christie's has been so fierce this season that the matter of which company gets the business often comes down to the art of the deal: how big a guarantee -- an undisclosed minimum sum promised to the seller regardless of the outcome of bidding -- an auction house is willing to give. Sometimes the house puts up all the money itself; other times, to spread the risk, it silently works with a dealer or a collector willing to invest in a collection or a work of art.
The result often means higher prices but lower returns. When a work is guaranteed, the profits are shared by the auction house, the seller and any investor. In addition, experts frequently end up putting higher estimates on works that have been guaranteed to cover their costs.
It's a risky business. This season, the number of guarantees makes these risks as high as the quality of the art.
"There's an enormous amount of money being made, and the number of people wanting to put their savings on their walls is larger than it's ever been," said Tobias Meyer, director of contemporary art for Sotheby's worldwide and the company's principal auctioneer. "This is not about spending US$500,000. These people are not afraid to spend several million dollars for something they know is really good."
Each auction season reflects current tastes and fashions. For several years there has been a shift away from older, Impressionist works and toward a more modern sensibility. Sotheby's sale on Thursday night is heavily tipped toward more modern art; paintings by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Modigliani are among the top lots.
Christie's auction tomorrow has its share of pretty, classic Impressionist paintings. The work with the highest estimate at Christie's is Monet's Houses of Parliament, being sold by the heirs of Monet's dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. The dreamy scene of the buildings glimpsed through thick fog, painted in 1904, is expected to sell for US$12 million to US$18 million.
"There have been relatively few Impressionist works on the market recently," said Nicholas Maclean, Christie's international director of Impressionist and modern art. "Based on the interest we are seeing, we are confident all the top Impressionist works will sell well."
Christie's sale of 58 lots this week is expected to bring US$112 million to US$158 million, far less than the US$208 million to US$290 million expected for Sotheby's 61 lots. But one collection at Christie's -- paintings, drawings and sculptures collected over the last 60 years by Nathan Halpern, a television impresario who died in April -- is especially interesting. Experts say the most sought-after work will be a rare Joan Miro, Caress of the Stars (1938), which is expected to sell for US$6 million to US$8 million. The painting, with the artist's well-known abstractly grotesque figures juxtaposed against a galaxy of stars, is Miro's visual comment on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and hope for the future of the Spanish Republic.