The billion dollar art binge

A billion-dollar blitz of art buying at New York auction houses could rewrite the record books
  • @susborne

The already well-worn gavels of New York City are hammering out record-breaking sales as the biggest auction houses defy the recession with lots that are expected to fetch a billion dollars in a two-week frenzy of cultural consumption.

Monet’s Nympheas, one of the French Impressionist’s water-lily paintings, sold last night for almost $44m (£27m). It was the highlight of 70 works on sale at Christie’s by artists who also included Picasso, Matisse and Magritte.

Kandinsky’s Studie für Improvisation 8 sold for $23m (£14.4m), an auction record for the Russian painter.

Today, the world’s richest collectors will direct their limousines two miles north-east across Manhattan to Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale. More than 60 lots there include nine works by Picasso, led by paintings of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter.  Nature morte aux tulipes carries an estimate of up to $50m while Femme à la Fenêtre could fetch up to $20m. Dollars fly by the million every May and November in New York at the biannual auctions, but sales this week are exceeding expectations among collectors and auction houses.

“There’s fierce appetite across the world for the best-quality objects,” said Conor Jordan, Christie’s deputy chair of Impressionist and modern art. “Record prices get the headline but demand is strong at every level.”

Mr Jordan credits the economic downturn with pushing investors, including increasingly wealthy new buyers from Russia and China, towards canvas rather than stocks. “In times when interest rates are not huge, people are turning to something beautiful in their house that may also hold value,” he said.

But Michael Moses, co-founder of the Mei Moses All Art index, which tracks publicly sold art, says that “on a return and risk basis, there isn’t a significant difference between art or stocks over a long period”.

Stocks don’t look so good on walls, however, and for those with palaces and villas to fill, the buying doesn’t stop today. The Manhattan cash caravan moves on next week to sales of contemporary and post-war art with equally eye-watering estimates.

Rothko’s No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) could fetch $50m at Sotheby’s, while one of Francis Bacon’s “screaming pope” paintings should sell for up to $25m. Christie’s, meanwhile, is pinning its hopes on Andy Warhol’s Statue of Liberty, a 3D work expected to go for more than £$35m.

Not all the sales will benefit the super-rich, however. Nympheas was sold by the estate of Ethel Strong Allen, who was married to the late Wall Street executive Herbert Allen Sr.

She bequeathed the Monet to the not-for-profit Hackley School, 20 miles north of the Manhattan auction firms.