London auctions prove that art is now for the super-rich
Strong growth at top end of art market where buyers see estimate price as just a starting point.
Just over 40 million pounds (80 million dollars) for a Monet water lily painting, a record-smashing 15 million pounds for Italian futurist Gino Severini, four million for a Henry Moore sculpture and 5.5 million for a work by fashionable Russian modernist Natalia Goncharova were among the highlights of the recent annual impressionist and modern art auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's.
Total results exceeded previous records, as buyers spent 144 million pounds at Christie's - the most-ever in a European art sale - while Sotheby's sale made 102 million pounds.
Art experts say the results underline the fact that the super-rich are immune from the credit crunch, and that, more significantly, the middle-tier buyer who would spend up to a million pounds on a work of art, is cut out of the market.
The trend would eventually have a negative impact on the buying power of galleries and museums, analysts said.
Wealthy buyers, who regarded museum-quality art as an asset to investment portfolios, were also increasingly bypassing agents, appointing their personally-chosen experts to make the purchase, analysts noted.
Charles Dupplin, art expert at the specialist insurer Hiscox, believes there is a tale of two markets, with buoyancy at the top and evidence of a slowing in the middle market.
The market was "beginning to see signs of a pause" in the middle tier - the sort of buyer who had probably made his money from financial services and was ready to spend from 200,000 to 1 million pounds on a work of art, he told the Guardian.
The influx of new buyers, particularly from Russia, but also from the Gulf states and South-East Asia, is generally seen as being behind the growing strength at the top end of the market.
Bidding was dominated by hedge fund owners, Russian billionaires, Chinese industrialists, Indian technology entrepreneurs and Middle Eastern sheiks, reports said.
"They have become the darlings of the art world, decisive and apparently impervious to market rates," according to the Times.
It was recently reported that London-based Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich splashed out 60 million pounds on Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and Francis Bacon's Trypich, 1976, at a New York sale, and that Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov bought an entire Mstislav Rostropovich art collection for 20 million pounds at Sotheby's.
"The market is strong and it recognizes quality when it comes up. Art in the past has not followed stock market fluctuations, and also there is an element of people seeing it as a refuge," said Olivier Camu, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie's.
"People's choices are now being driven by image rather than the artist's name. They want to look at their pieces, enjoy them and show them off," said Helena Newman, the vice-chairman of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art department.
For most buyers, she added, the estimate price was "just a starting point."
In the three-way battle for Monet's 1919 Le Bassin aux Nympheas at Christie's in June, bids went up in leaps of 500,000 pounds, participants reported.
The painting, from Monet's Giverny series, was sold for 40.1 million pounds, compared with a top estimate of 24 million pounds.
The hammer came down after fierce bidding between two telephone buyers and "a woman at the front of the room," believed to have been acting for a well-heeled client, whose identify remains the subject of feverish speculation.
Some experts, meanwhile, fear that the growing influence of super- wealthy buyers could mean that the art market is running out of big names.
"There are simply not enough works to go round. The art market is not huge, so you only need a few collectors like Abramovich to transform it," said Melanie Gerlis of the London-based Art Newspaper.
(DPA - expatica July 2008)