Prices disconnected from market reality?



At a time when Artprice’s Art Market Confidence Index shows purchase intentions exceeding 70%, auction estimates for Impressionist & Modern Art in New York are still rising.Judging by Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogues, the race for records at the top end of the market is continuing apace. The evening sales open with Christie’s at the Rockefeller Plaza where 71% of the lots offered (85 in total) are expected to generate million-plus results. The following day Sotheby’s will be attempting to sell no less than 76% of its 71 lots at million-plus prices.

Both auctioneers have star lots estimated at over $25m. Although Sotheby’s has kept secret the estimate for its Gustav KLIMT landscape, the four most recently sold Klimt landscapes each fetched between $28m and $39m.

The high point of the Christie’s sale will be a bronze by Edgar DEGAS entitled Petite danseuse de 14 ans. The auctioneer is proposing the most famous sculpture of the impressionist movement, cast by Hebrard, at $25m – $35m. If it sells in this price range, the model will have accreted in value by at least $8m in less than 2 years (it fetched the equivalent of $17m at Sotheby’s London on 3 February 2009) and by $15m over the last decade (it fetched the equivalent of $10.4m at Sotheby’s London on 27 June 2000). A word of warning to amateur collectors: not all of Degas’ small dancers are worth a fortune; other later casts of the young dancer (100 copies) can be acquired for less than $30,000 at auctions (on 29 March 2009 one such edition remained unsold against an estimate of €24,000 – €28,000 at Monsantic in Belgium).

Sotheby’s is proposing a superb Nu de dos by Henri MATISSE for $20m – $30m. The work is the first in a series of increasingly stylised bronze reliefs. Last year (2010), at the same sale, Christie’s generated an exceptional result of $43.5m for the fourth and last of the series, which no doubt explains the optimistic estimate for this robustly built Venus, the first relief of a complete series that can be seen at the Centre Georges Pompidou de Paris and at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. These museum series were produced in very limited editions after the artist’s death.

While Matisse’s first relief Nu de dos has not been pitched to set a new record for the work, the estimate for Alberto GIACOMETTI’s Femme de Venise VII would, if successful, be the best price ever paid for this work. Carrying an estimate of $10m – $15m, Femme de Venise VII (6 copies, 1957) has provenance from the heirs to the major art dealer, Pierre Matisse, who acquired the work in 1958 directly from Giacometti. The friendship between these two giants of art gives the piece an unquestionable and exciting pedigree that has prompted Christie’s to set a very high price. A Femme de Venise has never before crossed the $10m threshold.

In the two-dimensional arena, Christie’s has eleven works by Pablo PICASSO, including two portraits of Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar, each estimated between $12m and $18m. Femme endormie (1935, 55.2 x 46.4 cm) may well beat the estimated range since another Jeune femme endormie from the same year (with more fauvist colours… but less elegant lines), fetched the equivalent of $19m on 21 June 2011 in London (Christie’s).
The second Picasso portrait is a Tête de femme au chapeau mauve dated 1939 that has no auction history. If it sells within its estimated range it will become the most expensive Picasso “Woman with Hat” ever sold at auction.
Likewise, the painting Les vacances de Hegel (1958) by René MAGRITTE, looks heavily estimated at $9m – $12m. Even if Magritte’s price index is perfectly stable, will the incongruous association of a glass of water on an umbrella manage to dislodge a price record held by the artist’s most famous series, L’empire des lumières ($11.5m, Christie’s NY on 7 May 2002)? Apart from Les vacances de Hegel, Christie’s is offering four other works by Magritte, and Sotheby’s has three in its catalogue for the following day: eight works by Magritte in just two days… that’s the same number of Magritte works offered throughout 2009!The Impressionist & Modern Art sales are becoming increasingly contemporary: Claude MONET has become rare, while the Surrealists are gaining both in volume and price.

Rare works
It has to be said that the catalogues for these sales are of an exceptional quality including rare, artistically brilliant and unbeatable provenance works. Paul DELVAUX and Tamara DE LEMPICKA are among the rare and highly sought-after signatures that are bound to sell at lofty prices. Delvaux’s Mains de Delvaux (1941) is estimated at $6m – $9m… In order to convince the seller to release such a valuable masterpiece, Christie’s is guaranteeing the price. The auctioneer is therefore financially committed on this transaction to a minimum price agreed between it and the seller, which, in this case, is none other than the New York Museum of Modern Art. Its MOMA provenance could push the bidding into record territory; the price to beat is $8m for Les Cariatides on 3 May 2011 at Sotheby’s. The following day (2 November) Sotheby’s is offering the “little sister” of Cariatides: same models, same format and same year, for a canvas entitled Nus à la statue and offered at $3m – $5m.

In its race for records with Sotheby’s, Christie’s is proposing a masterpiece by Tamara Lempicka. This rare work is estimated $6m – $8m, which is $200,000 more than the record signed in June 2011 at Sotheby’s for the superb Dormeuse (that fetched the equivalent of $5.8m on 22 June 2011). On 2 November Sotheby’s is once again hoping to set a new record for Tamara de Lempicka with a languorous nude torso entitled Le Rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert), estimated at $5m – $7m.

The auction companies’ client portfolios are so well stocked with billionaire investors that the works sold at auction are now more expensive than those offered in art galleries.The rise in art prices, the hyper-mediatisation of prestige auction sales and the extraordinary efforts by auctioneers to globalise their markets, all appear to have turned the tide definitively. The opportunity to buy masterpieces costs top prices and the exceptional performance of the high-end of the art market has prompted auctioneers to offer guarantees and irrevocable bids (pre-sale at an undisclosed amount together with a percentage of the buyers’ premium if the work sells for more to another bidder). The return of these financial commitments representing a substantial risk for the auction companies demonstrates their degree of confidence in the market.