London auction houses hope more collectors defy the economy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:10pm

Auctioneers are pinning their hopes on "uber-collectors" to help London's summer art sales top last year's US$1 billion total when the series kicks off later this month.

Estimates from Christie's, Sotheby's and their smaller rivals such as Phillips and Bonhams for sales over the next few weeks inthe British capital show that the paintings, sculptures and furniture under the hammer are on course to defy a sluggish global economy again this year.

The top two houses have recently put more than US$300 million worth of their most expensive works up for sale on public show at their London galleries in Mayfair, hoping pre-sale exhibitions might inspire a bit of impulse buying from serious collectors making the London stop on the art trail.

"What we hope is that the rather more transitory uber-collectors who are in London, Basel and Venice will come in and see things that they wouldn't normally look at," deputy chairman of Christie's Europe, Orlando Rock, said.

Christie's, the world's biggest auctioneer, has a star lot that is a price-on-request (around US$23 million) diptych by 20th-century American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a painting from Russian Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, which could set a lifetime record for the artist if it sells north of US$23 million. Its top estimate is US$24.86 million. The latter will go under the hammer on Tuesday and the former on June 25.

Nearest rival Sotheby's has French Impressionist Claude Monet's Le Palais Contarini with a top estimate of US$31 million to be sold on June 19 and British contemporary artist David Hockney's Double East Yorkshire (US$4.6 million) on June 26.

Continued weakness in a battered euro zone and slowing Chinese economic growth have made investors wary in the past two years, but high-end art sales have continued to break records.

New York has long been considered the global capital of the auction world - most recent records have been set there.

This year's spring auctions were no different, ending on a high as Christie's May 15 post-war and contemporary art sale achieved the highest total - US$495 million - in the history of art auctions.

None of the star London lots currently come near the US$58.4 million paid at the Christie's sale in New York for US artist Jackson Pollock's Number 19, 1948.

A closer look at the estimates from Christie's and Sotheby's gives a mixed picture of a London season - which continues until end June/early July - that looks healthy but may not blast the record books.

Estimates from Christie's of about US$388 million for this year are lower than sales of just under US$600 million last year, although the top estimate from Sotheby's for US$562 million easily eclipses last year's nearly US$385 million.

Alongside the Old Masters, and modern and fine art, auction houses have mixed in precious objects such as a Georgian coffee pot expected to become the most expensive piece of English silver ever sold and a 15th-century Virgil manuscript, as well as collectibles such as a watch worn by James Bond in Thunderball and unreleased lyrics from Bob Dylan.

London, a natural fit for Russian tycoons who have homes in the city and Middle Eastern buyers just a mid-haul flight away, will offer sought-after sculptures from antiquities to Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Elisabeth Frink, as well as fine Louis XIV furniture.

Soaring prices for art at a time of global economic uncertainty have long prompted warnings of a sharp correction and even collapse, but time and again in the past four years the market has defied the gloomiest predictions. Chinese demand has weakened and tastes can be fickle, but the very best works of art have generally risen in value since a brief drop in auction turnover in 2009.

The only copy of Edvard Munch's seminal image The Scream still in private hands came up for sale at Sotheby's in New York last year. After nearly 15 minutes of intense bidding, made in million-dollar increments, it finally sold for US$120 million including commission - a new auction record for any work of art.