Art market powers ahead despite credit woes

Deborah Brewster
Sales in the art market this week exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, with buyers at major New York sales defying widespread fears of a market slump as a result of the credit crisis.
Sotheby’s had its biggest sale ever by dollar value on Wednesday night, selling $362m worth of contemporary works. It sold a 1976 painting by Francis Bacon, “Triptych, 1976” for $86m, easily exceeding its estimate of $70m. The price was the highest ever paid for a contemporary work at auction. Bacon’s works would only fetch about $10m each a few years ago but the latest prices put the artist, who died in 1992, in the same price league as Picasso. Like many of his works, the triptych — which attracted three bidders — featured a distorted human form and was inspired by Greek mythology.
The previous night, Christie’s sold Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, a painting of a voluptuous JobCentre supervisor, for $33.6m, setting a new record for the work of a living artist. It also sold a 1952 work by Mark Rothko, “No 15”, for $50m, which was above its $40m estimate. Christie’s sale generated $348m in total.
The final prices do include a buyers’ commission of more than 12 per cent which is not included in the estimates. But the results were surprisingly strong and confirmed the ascendancy of contemporary art, which has firmly supplanted the Impressionist and Old Masters works favoured by the previous generation of collectors.
The prices also support the view that the art market has become increasingly global, with buyers from new markets such as India, China and the Middle East, which provides a depth of support which was lacking in previous market booms.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s jewels auctions in Geneva this week saw $100m in sales and Sotheby’s also reported strong demand for its contemporary Indian art sale this week.
The New York contemporary sales this week followed solid Impressionist and Modern auctions last week. Together, the two main auction houses sold close to $2bn in artworks during the two-week season - about 25 per cent more than last year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s each hold about 600 auctions a year, but the most expensive works usually sell during the May and November auctions in New York.
On the strength of the May sales, the two auction houses are already promoting their June sales of Impressionist and contemporary art in London
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