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Record art prices soothe downturn worries

FINANCIAL WOESThere has been concern ever since some disappointing sales last year that the art market could be suffering the effects of the US credit crunch


Record prices for works by Claude Monet and Edvard Munch at New York’s spring sales this week have helped ease fears over the effect of the faltering US economy on the international art market.

Evening sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses raised a total of US$512 million, slightly above lower estimates ahead of the sales, which featured a more tightly edited collection than in last year’s auctions.

Among the highlights were works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne, while records were set for Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Spanish surrealist Joan Miro.

Monet’s Le Pont du chemin de fer a Argenteuil, an 1873 painting of a railway bridge described by Christie’s as a “truly exceptional picture,” sold for a record US$41.4 million.

“It is the quintessential early Monet. We will not see another one this good for a long while, I don’t suppose, unless this one lures a few out,” said the evening’s auctioneer, Christopher Burge.

The previous record for the artist stood at US$36.5 million.

Munch’s Girls on a Bridge, described by Sotheby’s as “one of those iconic, impactful, colorful, modern masterworks,” meanwhile sold for US$30.8 million, again establishing a record for the artist.

And a work by French cubist Fernand Leger, Etude pour ‘La Femme en Bleu’ went to an anonymous buyer at Sotheby’s for a record US$39.2 million.

Simon Shaw, head of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, described the work as the “greatest cubist painting seen at auction in decades. You’ll never get another Leger like that.”

Nevertheless, other works by Monet as well as works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir and Matisse failed to find buyers.

There has been widespread concern ever since some disappointing sales last year that the art market could be suffering the effects of the US housing crisis and credit crunch, despite an upbeat assessment by the auction houses.

“We had fantastic results largely across the board, from the impressionist pictures ... into the modern works,” Sotheby’s Shaw said.

“I think it shows that any attempt to draw a facile link between what’s happening in the financial markets and what’s happening in the art auction market is irrelevant,” he said. “There’s enormous wealth. People are waiting for the right works to spend their money on.”

Christie’s Burge gave a similarly upbeat assessment, describing the market for good impressionist works as “alive and well,” despite the auction house’s takings falling just below its pre-sale low estimate of US$287 million.

“I think where things didn’t sell it was either because the works were unusual or they were possibly overpriced, or we were going for big estimates,” he said.

For Emmanuel Di Donna, director of evening sales at Sotheby’s, the key to the current market was offering top-quality works. “There’s a real pursuit of quality,” he said after Wednesday night’s sale.

David Norman, chairman of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern department, admitted that there had been concerns ahead of the sales.

“The whole market had a great sense of expectation and some trepidation about how these sales would perform,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people holding their breath.”

A larger than expected proportion of successful bidders from North America at the Sotheby’s sale — 67 percent — also helped buck suggestions that US buyers were withdrawing from the market.

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