Art-Fair Prices Cut by 20 Percent as Collectors Buy Old Masters

By Scott Reyburn

March 16 (Bloomberg) -- Dealers at the world’s biggest art and antiques fair cut prices of some modern works by as much as 20 percent as collectors sink cash into Old Masters, whose prices have held steady to defy the economic gloom.

Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Gabriel Metsu were sold at the European Fine Art Fair -- Tefaf -- in the Dutch city of Maastricht. Modern art dealers reduced prices, while contemporary-art exhibitors were less busy, with some sticking to 2008 levels even after auction prices declined between 30 and 50 percent. Many dealers said that buyers were taking longer to decide, with attendance down 5 percent on 2008.

“The disparity in price rises between Old Masters and contemporary has been crazy,” Richard L. Feigen, a New York dealer, said in an interview. “Some Old Master pictures haven’t increased in price in the last 20 years and there are people with a lot of cash at Tefaf looking for a place to park it.”

While works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, Emil Nolde and Wassily Kandinsky all sold, dealers said the fair did not have the same exuberance seen at the Christie’s International auction of the Yves Saint Laurent collection in Paris last month. The 22nd annual edition of the fair is the first test of whether the YSL auction was a one-off, or an indication that wealthy people are again looking at art as an alternative investment.

Rubens Price

London- and Munich-based Old Master paintings dealer Bernheimer-Colnaghi sold a head-and-shoulders portrait of an unknown bearded man painted by Rubens after his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1611. The 2-foot-2-inch-high work was bought by a U.S. collector for less than 5 million euros ($6.46 million), against an asking price of 5.5 million euros. The oil-on-panel painting had been acquired from a client a few months ago, said gallery owner Konrad Bernheimer.

“Everybody knows we’re going to have inflation within the next year or so,” said Bernheimer. “People are looking for a safe place to put money.”

Maastricht-based dealer Noortman Master Paintings, which is wholly owned by auctioneers Sotheby’s, sold a privately sourced panel painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Metsu of an old woman in an interior with a cat at her feet to a collector from the East Coast of the U.S. The price was near the asking figure of 3.6 million euros.

“People realize that Old Masters are a stable asset,” said gallery director William Noortman.

Paris-based Old Master specialists Haboldt & Co. sold five paintings on the first day, including a 6-inch-high still life of a glass of wine by the 17th-century Strasbourg-born artist Sebastien Stoskopff for 650,000 euros.

‘No Exuberance’

The price for this panel painting was about what it would have been at last year’s Tefaf, said Habolt’s Duco Wildeboer.

“Dealers have priced realistically. There is no exuberance in the Old Master section,” Wildeboer said. “Though business is roughly 15 percent down, it has exceeded our expectations.”

London-based dealer Johnny van Haeften Ltd., which specializes in Old Master paintings, sold six works and had another three reserved for its best-ever first day. By Saturday morning, the company had sold 12 paintings. A Flemish street scene by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Josse de Momper the Younger sold for about 500,000 pounds ($700,000), said owner Johnny van Haeften.

Raimund Thomas, owner of Munich’s Galerie Thomas, which specializes in 20th-century German Expressionist art, sold a mid- 1920s Nolde landscape in oils for slightly less than 2 million euros and a 1924 Kandinsky watercolor for about 1 million euros.

Prices Down

“German Expressionism is a stable market,” said Thomas. “Though some of our clients have dropped out, most of our buyers haven’t been severely affected by the economy. Business at Tefaf is no different from other years.” This year, he had reduced prices by an average of 20 percent, he said.

“It’s still a bit tentative,” said London-based dealer Richard Nagy. “There are quite a lot of reserves, but these have to be converted into sales.”

Nagy is offering a 2 foot-high canvas of a mother and child by German Expressionist artist Egon Schiele that the painter cut in 1911 from a larger composition featuring three figures of mothers. Dealers had sold only a handful of high-value oil paintings by the short-lived Viennese artist within the last five years, said Nagy, who priced the work at 8.5 million euros. Had the painting been at last year’s Tefaf, it would have been offered for about 11 million euros, he said.

“We’ve got some nibbles from a couple of serious collectors, but nothing definite yet,” said Nagy.

Contemporary Sales

Apart from the Basquiat -- bought by U.K. jeweler Laurence Graff from the New York-based debut exhibitor Christophe Van de Weghe for 3.5 million euros -- the only other big-ticket sales so far announced by contemporary dealers were three Bourgeois “Personnages” sculptures. These found buyers on the booth of London- and Zurich-based gallery Hauser & Wirth. Each was priced at about $1 million, said Tefaf.

“Business is a little bit slower, conversations are longer and people are not feeling under pressure,” said Graham Southern, director of the London-based contemporary art specialists, Haunch of Venison, a wholly owned subsidiary of auction house Christie’s.

The gallery’s booth was offering the 7-foot-square Damien Hirst butterfly painting, “Mysticism,” for $1.5 million. The price would have been the same in 2008, said Southern. At the time of writing, the Hirst had yet to find a buyer.

“Prices seem the same for a lot of contemporary works, except when they’re selling at auction,” said Brussels-based art adviser Henry Bounameaux, who was visiting the fair. “It’s difficult for those dealers to drop prices.”

Richter Unsold

Dusseldorf-based Tefaf exhibitor Schoenewald Fine Arts is offering the 1987 Gerhard Richter landscape, “Kleine Strasse,” for 4.5 million euros. The dealer had acquired the photo-based painting in June last year at Sotheby’s London for 2.3 million pounds with fees. At the time of writing, the work was also still available.

The attendance for the VIP preview and the first official day was 15,908, a 5 percent decline on last year. During the first two days, 72 private jets flew into Maastricht/Aachen airport, just three fewer than during the same period in 2008, said Tefaf.

Tefaf is owned and organized by its trade exhibitors who are offering $1 billion worth of museum-quality artworks, from prehistory to the present day. Old Masters remain its mainstay, with about a quarter of the fair’s record 239 dealers being specialists in pre-19th-century pictures. The fair closes on March 22.

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