ART MARKET / The year of dealing normally: It was neither boom nor bust in 1993, says Geraldine Norman, just average mayhem

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The Independent Culture
LAST year was when the art market got back to normal. Two years of stringent recession had followed the wild follies of the 1980s art investment boom and in 1993, at last, the market was neither booming nor collapsing. Some rarities fetched spectacular prices while others failed to sell. There was no predicting what the super- rich were going to want - but when they wanted it, prices soared.

The spectacular auction successes of the year included a Cezanne still life, Les Grosses Pommes, sent for sale at Sotheby's New York in May by the Greek shipowner, George Embiricos. It was bought for dollars 28.6m ( pounds 19.7m) by Stavros Niarchos. Then there was the Michelangelo drawing, The Holy Family, hidden from the world in an Oxfordshire home since 1836, which was bought in July by the Getty Museum of Malibu, California, at Christie's, London, for pounds 4.2m.

Muhammed Mahdi Al-Tajir, former ambassador to the UK from the United Arab Emirates and often described as 'the richest man in the world', added a chandelier to his enormous collection of English silver, paying 19.98m French francs ( pounds 2.37m) and setting a new price record for silver at auction. The chandelier was designed by William Kent for King George II in the 1730s, and was made by a German silversmith.

It was included in a sale of furnishings from the Paris apartment of Hubert de Givenchy, the famous couturier, by Christie's in Monte Carlo on 4 December. This was the most fashionable sale of the year among the super-rich: there were 30 telephones relaying bids, and many millionaires dropped by in person. The world's leading furniture dealers were also there, but didn't get a look in.

Sotheby's spectacular success of the autumn was a sale of 64 lots which realised five times its estimate at pounds 5.5m. A Caeretan hydriae (water jar) of the 6th century BC, decorated with a scene of Hero battling with the sea monster Ketos, made 10 times its estimate and set a new price record for a Greek vase at pounds 2.2m.

Other successes of the year included pounds 2,421,500 for an Islamic bronze lion of the 11th or 12th century, hitherto unknown, which Christie's offered on behalf of 'an important European family'. A Regency desk, made for the Marquess of Anglesey, sold for pounds 1,761,500, setting a world record price for English furniture, while a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz of his artist wife Georgia O'Keeffe's hands sewing, became the most expensive photograph in the world at dollars 398,500 ( pounds 274,500).

In the sale that contained the Stieglitz photograph, 43 per cent of lots went unsold: super successes remained the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, one characteristic of the year has been owners getting fed up with waiting for the market to recover and selling art at auction for a loss - no doubt, the pressure of creditors has had a lot to do with it.

A Japanese consigner let an Egon Schiele masterpiece, Liebespaar, go at Sotheby's November sale in New York for dollars 4,677,500 ( pounds 3,225,862). It was not revealed how much the painting cost him, but probably at least double that figure. It was bought at a Sotheby's London sale in 1984 by Wendell Cherry, the American owner of a chain of hospitals, for pounds 3,190,000. His wife didn't like it so he sold it on. Eventually it went to Japan. Similarly, a Dubuffet, Mademoiselle Bois de Rose, which sold for Fr8.8m ( pounds 1m) at the Bourdon sale in Paris in 1990, was auctioned at Christie's in December for pounds 304,000.

The most striking example of the trend, however, was the collection of some 45,000 Greek and Roman coins which were bought by two Merrill Lynch investment funds, Athena I and Athena II, in the 1980s, for a total of dollars 32.4m ( pounds 22.3m). They are now being dispersed by Sotheby's without reserve, which means that no mimimum prices have been set. The prospect of bargains caused so much excitement among collectors that Sotheby's received 10,000 advance bids on the 2,000 coins offered in the first sales from the collection, held in Zurich in October, but prices seldom topped estimate. The great rarity of the auction was a Brutus aureus (gold coin) struck with two daggers to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar. The piece fetched 528,000 Swiss francs ( pounds 247,000): it had been auctioned in California in 1990 for pounds 381,000.

The strongest market over the past year has been in the United States, encouraged by the reintroduction of full tax deductibility for donations to museums. The new-found optimism of US collectors was reflected in more active bidding in Impressionist and modern picture sales - American favourites - as well as in sales of American pictures. New price records were set for two 19th-century Americans, a Childe Hassam at dollars 5.5m ( pounds 3.8m) and a pastel by William Merritt Chase at dollars 4m ( pounds 2.76m).

The Italians have been much less active in the market, as one collector after another has become embroiled in corruption trials. Spanish buyers are also in retreat and the Japanese are becoming sellers rather than buyers. They are also struggling with police investigations: two leading Impressionist dealers have been arrested for tax evasion, while Ryoei Saito, the paper manufacturer who paid the highest prices ever recorded for paintings at auction in 1990 - dollars 82.5m ( pounds 56.9m) for Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr Gachet and dollars 78.1m ( pounds 53.9m) for Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette - has been arrested for allegedly bribing a politician.

The bright new hope for the future is considered to lie elsewhere in Asia - in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul - but the new market made a hesitant start. European dealers shipped Western pictures to fairs in Singapore and Hong Kong, and took most of them home unsold. Christie's first sale of Western paintings in Taiwan was a flop, while the 15th- century dragon jar that Sotheby's hoped would set a new price record for Chinese porcelain in Hong Kong in November, estimating it at pounds 1.3m - pounds 2.1m, didn't find a buyer.

(Photographs omitted)