ART MARKET / Year of the bargain hunter: Less for sale, lower prices, fewer big spenders - world recession took its toll this season, even if some objects fetched record-breaking sums

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IT'S TIME to provide an end-of- term report on the art market. Like Parliament, the law courts and public schools, art auctioneers take a long summer break and measure the passing of time in seasons rather than calendar years. The 1991-92 season has just closed, after recording the worst results for five years.

Auction turnover for the year fell by 14 per cent at Sotheby's and 10 per cent at Christie's, calculated in sterling - which means that the gap between the two houses has narrowed marginally. In 1990-91 the turnover of both fell by around 50 per cent from an all-time high in 1989-90, the last season of the Eighties speculative boom.

This year's fall in turnover is a direct result of world recession, not of inefficiency in the auction rooms. The Art Sales Index in Weybridge, Surrey, which compiles a data bank of all pictures worth more than pounds 500 auctioned worldwide, has given me an estimate of what it thinks the results will be when all the figures have been input in three or four weeks' time. The number of pictures sold will probably be unchanged at around 80,000, but turnover in money terms will have fallen by around 10 per cent. This compares to a 30 per cent fall in numbers last year and a 70 per cent cut in cash turnover.

The year has seen a steady succession of galleries closing. The Heim Gallery, Old Master specialists in Jermyn Street, was the first to go, followed by Sparks, an old-established firm of Oriental dealers, then Ackerman's, purveyors of sporting pictures since the 18th century. In the contemporary field, two of London's most famous connoisseurs decided to close up shop, Dr Wolfgang Fischer and John Kasmin.

The last few weeks have seen three new additions to the list: Barling of Mount Street (furniture and Oriental decorations) has gone, as have Arthur Davidson of Duke Street (haute epoque furnishings) and the Brod Gallery of St James's (top-quality Dutch Old Masters).

But the question of central importance to the future of the art market is whether A Alfred Taubman, the American tycoon, will manage to hold on to Sotheby's. He made his money from shopping malls, and the collapse of both property values and the retail sector of the American economy is putting his empire under pressure; Forbes magazine estimates that his personal fortune has fallen from dollars 2bn to dollars 600m over the last two years. He sold eight million Sotheby's shares in July for dollars 100m, retaining 14 million special 'B' shares which carry 10 votes each and give him control of the company. Investment analysts suggest that he will be forced to sell out unless there is a sharp upturn in the US economy.

During the 10 years that he has owned it, Taubman has impressed his very American business style on Sotheby's and thus on the market as a whole. If he goes the whole ethos could change, especially if Sotheby's and Christie's succeed in holding auctions in Paris next year. The auction market would develop a markedly more European accent.

Due to the recession, much less material came up for sale than in previous years. No one was selling unless they really had to; most important art reached the market because of a family death or special financial pressures, including bankruptcy. The most expensive paintings of the year came from British aristocratic collections - largely as a result of the threat that they might be banned from export by a heritage 'list', a scheme that was scotched by David Mellor when he took over the arts portfolio.

Holbein's Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel looked like making the year's top auction price when Christie's announced its forthcoming sale on behalf of the Marquess of Cholmondeley in February. In the event the National Gallery in London managed to negotiate its purchase before the auction at a tax- exempt figure of pounds 10m. This might have been the equivalent of getting anything from pounds 15m to pounds 25m for it

at auction, depending on how the Treasury decided to calculate Cholmondeley's tax bill.

That left the two highest auction prices of the year as the pounds 10.12m paid by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for Lord Malmesbury's large Canaletto view of The Old Horse Guards, London, from St James's Park, and the surprise pounds 7.48m for Lord Normanton's Venus and Adonis by Titian. The latter came up at Christie's in December, catalogued as by 'Titian and workshop' and estimated at pounds 1m; everyone decided it was a real Titian, most especially the Getty Museum in Malibu, California. The Getty paintings curator, George Goldner, did not have time to convince his trustees before the sale; Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox in London, and Hermann Schickman in New York bought it together, in the hope that the Getty Museum might take it off their hands later. It is now in Malibu.

Goldner remains the dominant buyer in the market. The National Gallery would not have had to spend so much on the Holbein if he had not been around to bid it up at auction. He rescued Agnew's, the Bond Street dealers, from severe financial difficulties in late 1991 by paying around pounds 7m for Sebastiano del Piombo's portrait of Pope Clement VII, which had cost only pounds 418,000 at Christie's in 1987. And he rescued a consortium of dealers by taking a large Canaletto View of the Grand Canal off their hands for roughly the same price.

Old Master sales remained the strongest sector of the picture market but, with few buyers around, prices were very erratic. In April, Christie's could not find a buyer prepared to pay the pounds 6m they were asking for a ravishing tiny Rembrandt, Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol of Bel, but Sotheby's persuaded Milwaukee collector Alfred Bader to give Rembrandt's Portrait of Johannes Uytenbogaert a home at pounds 4.18m

in July.

In the Impressionist and contemporary markets, where prices collapsed in 1990, something called 'bottom fishing' became fashionable; this meant trying to see how cheaply you could buy a picture. There were signs that American investors were still interested in buying if they could get a picture at a half or a third of the 1989 price. Christie's had the two best sales of the year, the Tremaine and McCarty-Cooper collections, and scored dollars 7.7m ( pounds 4.3m) for both Tremaine's Leger and Cooper's Braque - pictures that were unquestionably among the finest produced by the two artists.

In the contemporary field, Eighties art was selling much better than that of the Sixties or Seventies. Charles Saatchi and the bankrupt estate of Fredrik Roos put a lot of good Eighties material on the market, setting new price records for Anselm Kiefer, Malcolm Morley and Marcel Broodthaers among others. There were also many new price records for Latin American artists, reflecting the wealth of Latin American collectors. Diego Rivera's The Flower Seller set an all-time high at dollars 2.97m ( pounds 1.65m), matching the new record for a Victorian painting - Richard Dadd's Contradiction - which was paid, again, by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In almost every field, auctions this year were dominated by private buyers rather than dealers - dealers seem to be having an even harder time with the recession than the auctioneers are. This was notably true of the sales of important French and Continental furnishings spread round the year; rich French speculators are said to have moved from pictures into objects.

Some of the extraordinary prices included the Ff23m ( pounds 2.3m) paid by the French banker Jean-Marc Vernes for an exquisite jewel cabinet made for Queen Marie-Antoinette; the dollars 1.98m ( pounds 1.2m) for a Louis XVI commode painted with roses from the Ortiz-Patino collection; the dollars 1.8m ( pounds 1.1m) for a pair of silver ice buckets made in Paris for Horace Walpole; the pounds 770,000 for a rococo bureau by Pietro Piffetti of Turin (sent for sale by Lord Ashburton); and the dollars 1.21m ( pounds 712,000) for a Savonnerie carpet, sent for sale by Seward Johnson, the baby-powder heiress - the highest auction price on record for a carpet.

Prices for English furniture were more hit-and-miss. Christie's had two hits - the sale of the Samuel Messer collection in December and Chippendale furnishings from Harewood House in July. A Chippendale commode made pounds 935,000, a pair of Harewood silvered mirrors pounds 319,000.

It was generally a very quiet year for the Oriental market. Chinese sales were not doing well, while Japanese buyers were suffering both from recession and a lot of art market scandals back home. Korea proved to be the new wild card in the pack; a 14th-century Korean painting made 10 times its estimate at dollars 1.76m ( pounds 1m) in October and an 18th-century blue and white vase made seven times its estimate at pounds 418,000 in December.