For the past 50 years the Impressionists – Monet, Manet, Renoir – have dominated auction houses, headlines and gallery viewing numbers. But their reign as the titans of the auction room is drawing to an end.
According to art experts, the Impressionists are being shoved out of the big money stakes by the German Expressionists and Italian Futurists working in the early 20th century.
Over the past year, relatively obscure artists such as Gino Severini, Franz Marc and Alexej von Jawlensky have seen their value soar by almost 1,000 per cent. Big money from new collectors such as the Emir of Qatar and Roman Abramovich and other wealthy Asians and Russians are warping a market traditionally dominated by American industrialists.
This summer's round of auctions of Impressionist and modern art in London, which will take place at the end of the month, are estimated by the big auction houses to raise more than £500m – the highest ever pre-sale estimate for a European auction – and comes despite the credit crunch that many observers predicted would see the art market collapse.
The biggest lot in the Sotheby's sale is a 1919 Futurist painting by Gino Severini, called Danseuse, which has an estimate of between £7m and £10m, the same value given to a well-known Monet work, La Plage à Trouville (1870). The record for Severini is a mere £1.5m, yet Sotheby's says it is justified in giving it such a high estimate after its experience with a Franz Marc painting in February.
The German Expressionist's Grazing Horses III sold for a record £12.3m, against a pre-sale estimate of £6m-£8m, the highest price paid for a painting in that round of modern and Impressionist auctions. He too, however, has seen his value soar over the past few years. That sale also saw a record price for Jawlensky. His 1910 Schokko with Wide-Brimmed Hat went for nearly £9.5m.
Other early 20th-century artists who have seen their work sell for record prices in the past year include the Expressionist Chaim Soutine, whose L'homme au foulard rouge sold for £8.7m last year, Raoul Dufy, the French Fauvist whose La Foire aux Oignons sold for £4m, and the German Expressionist Lyonel Feininger, whose Jesuits III sold for £12m.
The buyers of these works are looking for bright and bold works, Helena Newman of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modernist department, said. "The new buyers are looking for works that are modern, colourful and iconic," she said. "Works that have 'wall power'. Artists who used to have national appeal (eg German Expressionists used to be bought almost exclusively by German buyers) now have international appeal and transcend national boundaries. In 2002, an entire sale of German Expressionists was worth about £6m. In 2007 it was worth £40m."
The big beasts of the art world remain the contemporary artists, such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Jeff Koons, however, whose work is selling for tens of millions of pounds.
The Expressionists and Futurists still have some way to go before matching the prices commanded by the likes of Monet and Picasso. Picasso's record auction price is £49m for a 1905 portrait of Dora Maar set in 2006, while Monet's record is £19m set in May.