AUCTIONS

Will the young artists work evolve or will they get fed up with painting and become dentists?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Next week: London's spring contemporary art sales. The market for contemporary art is recovering and the rich are getting richer. Only the rich can afford the safest investments that are at the very top of the market - blue-chip names such as the Italians Fontana and Poliakoff, whose established reputations are pushing their prices steadily upwards.

The fat-cat collectors' hunch is that the same big names that crested the late Eighties boom will lead the way out of the recession. A Fontana slashed canvas or a blocky Poliakoff abstract composition that would have fetched a whacking pounds 300,000 in the boom years 1988-89 can be snapped up for a third of that today - and in a rising market. At Christie's last November, Poliakoff's Composition - Jaune, Bleue et Rouge (1954) fetched pounds 194,000 - the highest price for the artist for five years. There are two Poliakoff abstract compositions in oils at Christie's on Tuesday (2.30pm) estimated pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000 and pounds 60,000-pounds 80,000. Sotheby's, Thursday (10.30am), has two more affordable Poliakoff abstracts: a 1945 watercolour pastel (25in by 19in) est pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 and a late gouache of the same size est pounds 8,000-pounds 10,000. Fontana's auction prices, hitherto dependent upon fluctuating Italian buying power, have been picking up since last year's exhibition Italian Metamorphosis at the Guggenheim in New York. It caught the attention of rich American collectors. They have brought their own inimitable aesthetic to bear upon Fontana's monochrome slashed canvases: pillar box red sells best, followed by blue, white and green - with gold in a top category all its own. Very symbolic. Wealth, see? Preferences for the other colours have probably been prompted by interior decorators.

You need to be quite well heeled to afford even the cheaper, less safe contemporary artists - the slapdash hotshots of the Eighties: German and Italian neo-Expressionists mostly still in their thirties. It costs pounds 6,000- pounds 12,000 to invest in a young German - Fetting, Middendorf, Penck - or pounds 10,000-pounds 20,000 for a young Italian such as Paladino, Chia, Clemente. Are their reputations worth a flutter? Will their work evolve, or will they get fed up with painting and become dentists or shoe salesmen? You just cannot trust the younger generation, these days.

The modern Brit market shows the same trend: big, safe - even dull - names are leading the recovery. Last November's main sale of the year, at Christie's, saw ultra-trad Munnings's Shrimp and the White Pony, modestly estimated pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000, sell for pounds 205,000. Another Munnings, of the de Beauvoir hounds, estimated pounds 30,000-pounds 50,000, made pounds 102,700. Four others sold well above estimate. This Thursday (11am), Christie's has an unusual Munnings (no horses) of haymaking on the Stour, estimated pounds 30,000-pounds 50,000.

The same sale has some 40 paintings and drawings by Augustus John and his sister Gwen, from the private collection of Philadelphia socialites Edgar and Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, upon whom the film "High Society" was based. These fresh-to-market works will either revive the patchy John market or bury it. Plenty of Lowries in this first sale since the announcement of pounds 75m of lottery funds for a Lowry gallery in Salford. Those clogs are becoming very blue chip. Sotheby's has a sale of Impressionists and moderns, Wednesday (10.30am).

John Windsor

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