Unlike London, New York is a flashy, in-your-face market: this month's $26.9m paid at Sotheby's New York for Van Gogh's sumptuous but undemanding Sous-Bois was but a minor sensation.
Traditionally, the London salerooms are a repository for the more challenging continental art that appeals to Europe's more sophisticated - and less well-heeled - taste. Typical of London's Euro-appeal this week: Sotheby's four paintings by the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele - two contorted, aching nude studies, one est pounds 300,000-pounds 400,000, and two portraits. German expressionism, condemned by Hitler as degenerate, is another Euro-favourite, snapped up by rich Jewish collectors and rich Koreans tutored by German art teachers.
London auctioneers are now itching to attract American buyers, encouraged by some surprise results in the June sales. An American collector paid a record pounds 485,500 in London for a vast, violent seascape by the living German artist Anselm Kiefer, reviled at the 1980 Venice for his references to German wartime atrocities: while in New York, a Kiefer abstract, owned by Sylvester Stallone and flaunted on the cover of Sotheby's sale catalogue, failed to sell.
To add insult to injury, the same Christie's sale that produced the Kiefer record got a whacking pounds 188,500 for a Warhol. But then, it was a portrait of a European, Joseph Beuys. Sotheby's has been insinuating Warhols into its London sales for the past three years. This week, it is offering a Rothko, whether to tempt American or European buyers is not clear.
The American art that is making the biggest splash among European buyers is pop art. George Segal's alienated plaster figures, for example, seem to tickle the existential fancies of Germans and Belgians. Christie's has a Segal, an installation of the artist's studio with bewildered standing female (est pounds 100,000-pounds 150,000), not to mention a Warhol, Double Elvis (pounds 320,000- pounds 380,000), and a sagging vinyl Soft Medicine Chest by Oldenburg (pounds 80,000-pounds 120,000).
London's sales are all "tight", in auctioneer's jargon: weeded down to about 50 lots of fresh-to-market, modestly estimated works, the run of the mill relegated to Part II sales. This is particularly striking in Sotheby's Impressionist Part I, full of small, jewel-like paintings such as Gauguin's Femmes au Bord de la Riviere, estimated at a mere pounds 1.5m- pounds 2m.
Point to ponder: which side of the Atlantic will carry off Brancusi's 11in bronze egg, est pounds 1.2-pounds 1.8m in Christie's Impressionist and modern Part I? It is titled Le Commencement du Monde. Starters, please?
Impressionist and modern: Christie's Part I Tues, Part II Wed. Sotheby's Part I Mon, Part II Tues. Contemporary: Christie's Thurs, Sotheby's Part 1 Wed, Part II Thurs. Impressionist, modern and contemporary: Christie's South Kensington Mon.
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