Investors Turn to Art; Sales Make Record $1.1 Billion

By Scott Reyburn
London auction houses sold a record 558.8 million pounds ($1.1 billion) of art including fees over two weeks, with buyers coming into the market seeking to make money as other investments stalled.
The total, calculated by Bloomberg from auction house results, is the highest for Impressionist and contemporary sales in London, beating the 521.1 million pounds in February.
``There's no confidence in stock markets at the moment,'' said London dealer Alan Hobart, of Pyms Gallery. ``People have realized there's money to be made out of art.''
The auction houses' day sales of ``affordable items'' under 500,000 pounds showed continuing demand. A week ago, analysts said that the global economic slowdown and credit crunch might reduce sales for priced at less than $1 million, while billionaires such as Russia's Roman Abramovich would continue to buy trophies.
The high point of the series was the 40.9 million pounds with fees paid on June 24 at Christie's International for Claude Monet's 1919 water-lily painting, ``Le Bassin aux Nympheas.'' The price, twice the mid estimate, bid in the room by the London-based art adviser Tania Buckrell Pos, was the highest paid for an Impressionist work of art in Europe, said Christie's.
When contacted by telephone, Buckrell Pos said she could not make any comment about the nationality of her client. ``But there's no doubt that people are now treating art as an alternative asset class,'' she said.
Sale Totals
For the first time, Christie's and Sotheby's held Impressionist and contemporary auctions in successive weeks. Their contemporary sales, combined with Phillips de Pury, fetched 260.9 million pounds. February's sales were 250.1 million pounds.
The pursuit of ``passion investments'' by the world's richest individuals remains undeterred by economic volatility, said the World Wealth Report, published last month by Merrill Lynch & Co. and Capgemini SA.
Worldwide, High Net Worth Individuals spent 15.9 percent, the highest proportion, of their ``Investment-of-Passion'' dollars on fine art, said the report. The European wealthy are the most avid consumers, spending 22 percent of these dollars on art, it said.
On July 3, Sotheby's 329-lot day sale of contemporary art made 26.8 million pounds with fees against an estimate of 19.8 million pounds to 28 million pounds. Eighty-three percent of the lots found buyers.
Keeping Up
``Many new buyers are coming into the market,'' London dealer Michael Hue-Williams said in an interview. ``It's a `keeping up with the Joneses' thing. They see contemporary art at a friend's place, then they want to own some. The easiest thing to do is go along to an auction house.'' His Albion Gallery represents international contemporary artists.
``The doom mongers are wrong,'' said London-based dealer Kenny Schachter. ``Contemporary art's where the action is. It's become a commodity market like oil or copper.''
Sellers were making profits from works by emerging market favorites bought in the last three years. In May, the Pakistani- born Rashid Rana topped the ``Indian Contemporary Art Market Confidence Ranking'' by London-based research company ArtTactic.
Pornographic Photos
Rana's 2007 work, ``Veil #6'' -- an image of five women in burqas, made of thousands of tiny pornographic photos -- sold at Sotheby's to a telephone buyer for 325,250 pounds with fees. The 5-foot, 10-inch-wide photomontage, with a lower estimate of 60,000 pounds, was from an edition of five.
``The current gallery price for this type of Rana is about $60,000,'' Conor Macklin, director of London's Grosvenor Gallery said in an interview. The gallery, which specializes in Indian art, held a 2005 exhibition of works by Indian contemporary painter T.V Santhosh, who is second in ArtTactic's Indian art confidence rankings.
Santhosh's 6-foot-wide canvas, ``Man Made Famine and the Rats,'' was bought at the show for $15,000, said Macklin. At Sotheby's it sold for a twice-estimate 121,250 pounds with fees.
``The international appeal of these artists is making them fetch high prices,'' said Macklin.
James Sevier, specialist in charge of Sotheby's auction, said that more than half the lots had sold to European private buyers in his day sale.
``A lot of them buy at our evening sales and so aren't the sort of people who are affected by economic downturns,'' he said.
Christie's and Phillips experienced more mixed demand at their contemporary day sales.
New Saleroom
On June 30, Phillips only managed to sell 57 percent of the 391 lots it was offering at its new saleroom in a former mail sorting office in Victoria.
The auction, with many young Western and Chinese artists, totaled 6.3 million pounds against a low estimate of 11.2 million pounds.
When contacted by telephone, no senior specialist at Phillips de Pury was available for interview.
``It's all about presentation, marketing and getting the estimates right,'' said London dealer Gerard Faggionato, who represents the Francis Bacon Estate. ``Sotheby's were also selling more classic material.''
The following day Christie's raised 22.4 million pounds with fees from 337 contemporary lots, 67 percent of which found buyers. The presale estimate was 22.8 million pounds to 32.2 million pounds.
``Christie's had good material,'' said Schachter. ``The estimates were just too high. The market's in good health, but if you get too aggressive with prices it can be fickle.''
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