Impressionists back in favour thanks to Asia, Russia buyers

After being out in the cold, Impressionist works are set to shoot to favour at major art auctions in London this week as buyers from Asia and Russia step in where Japanese collectors once feared to tread.

"Since mid-2009 there's been a strong demand for Impressionist works, which had been squeezed out for three years prior due to the boom in contemporary art," said Samuel Valette, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's France.

The accent currently is on quality, he said, with a fold of new buyers from Asia and Russia, as well as European and US investors, "looking for the very best", he said.

That meant not only the aesthetic quality of a work but also its origin, he said.

One such piece is a rare water lily painting by Claude Monet, among dozens of modern masterpieces offered for sale by Christie's on Wednesday in London in what is being billed as the "most valuable" art auction ever held in the city.

Painted in 1906, "Nympheas" is part of the French Impressionist's iconic Nympheas series and was purchased directly from the artist three years later by dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose descendants kept it through several generations.

Sold at auction in New York in 2000 to a private collector for 22 million dollars (not including fees), it is expected this week to fetch between 30 and 40 million pounds (44.5 to 59.4 million dollars, 35.9 to 47.9 million euros).

Christie's has said it expects the London sale of 63 modern and impressionist artworks on June 23 to raise between 163 and 231 million pounds (196-276 million euros, 240-338 million dollars).

Impressionist oils enjoyed a golden age on the art market in the late 1980s, when enthusiastic Japanese buyers sent prices soaring for the best as well as the not-quite-best works produced by the turn-of-the-19th-century school.

When investors from Japan dropped out of the market however after 1990, due to the economic squeeze, Impressionism took a dive, Valette said.

"Nowadays the market is more balanced. The Japanese are still present but so are Russians, the rest of Asia, America and Europe.

For some new investors, "Impressionism is a first step in joining the art market", said Thomas Seydoux, Christie's international director of Impressonist and modern art.

First-time buyers appreciate the movement's "decorative side, the bright colours, the contrasting shade", he said.

In the last few years however the market has evolved, with collectors nowadays going for works from the post-1890s rather than earlier oils from 1870 to 1880.

"Tastes have changed in favour of works with more matter," said Seydoux, referring to the switch from oils depicting rural scenes to urban Impressionist works.

Among the top 15 works sold under the hammer for over 50 million dollars, Monet is in 8th position with a 1919 "Water-Lily Pond" that went for 40.9 million pounds (80 million dollars) in 2008 in London.

Renoir's "Au Moulin de la Galette" is in 9th position after fetching 78.1 million dollars in 1990 in New York.

But in May, a 1932 painting by Pablo Picasso set a world art auction record when it sold for a staggering 106.4 million dollars, signalling a renewed confidence in the market.

"When the recession was at its height, people felt that there was no point in selling the pictures if the market was weak because there was no money around," London art dealer Johnny van Haeften told AFP.

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