The Green Shoots by Hockney, Miro and Matisse: The art market is showing signs of a revival, says John Windsor. Now may be a good time for bargain-hunters

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One swallow does not a summer make, so when a flock of private buyers, including many new faces, descended on Sotheby's major contemporary print sale in June, auctioneers were unmoved. The 'PBs', who usually make up 5 per cent of the attendance, outnumbered dealers. Most were British.

They were after nearly 90 Hockneys swept into auction by the demise of the Kasmin gallery, which nurtured him. As soon as the last Hockney had been sold, they flew off again.

However, it seems there are plenty more swallows in the sky. Last week Sotheby's held another big sale (860 lots), attended by the usual small proportion of private buyers, and a Hockney print from the same edition of 150 as one sold in June made an even better price. Rue de Seine (1972), a restful view through French windows that had fetched pounds 7,920 in June, sold for pounds 9,350 to a London gallery. Many prints rejected in June found buyers.

Dealers have taken heart from the sale. They reckon that the modern and contemporary print market, whose prices plummeted by 50 to 70 per cent from an inflated peak two years ago, is coming back to life again.

One dealer, William Weston, explained: 'The real difference between this sale and the one six months ago was that, although there was not much interesting new material, instead of lots being bought in there was widespread competition to buy. I was impressed.'

Ian Mackenzie, head of Sotheby's print department, was even more daring. 'I definitely detected green shoots,' he said. 'Prices came up off the bottom and bidders overcame the psychological breaking point of being unwilling to go beyond pounds 10,000.'

The confidence of dealers, mostly Continental, American and Japanese, was not diminished by the drop in value of the pound, which gave them a 15 per cent discount on all purchases.

Ironically, at Christie's smaller print sale last week, which failed to generate the same oomph as Sotheby's, an identical Rue de Seine was unsold at pounds 4,200.

It seems that this is the time to take advantage of a market that is on the mend but still patchy enough to yield bargains. Shop around. Last week, corporate art buyers and art investment consultants were doing just that.

The modern and contemporary print sector is a better than average barometer of the strength of the art market because of its uniformity. Unlike Old Master prints and paintings, which are scarce or unique, modern prints are published in editions typically of 50 or 150 - signed by the artist to guarantee not only authenticity but uniform quality. The result is a more typical commodity market. Collectors are drawn to it because of the availability of the material (the joy of buying need not be postponed) and they can compare the prices of like with like.

Sotheby's June sale result looked more buoyant than it was. The bought-in figure of 32 per cent by value was bolstered by pounds 770,000 paid by a Japanese collector for a single lot, an exceptionally rare complete set of Marc Chagall's 42 colour lithographs, Daphnis and Chloe (1961). Calculated by lot, the proportion left unsold was a depressing 44 per cent. Last week's lively sale registered 27 per cent unsold by lot, 22 per cent by value. At Christie's last week, 38 per cent of lots were unsold, 21.5 per cent by value.

The market upturn follows a pick-up in the price of modern paintings in London, Paris and New York. They have been selling at auction for more than pounds 5m for the first time since the market crashed in 1990. But prices are still a third to a fifth down on 1989-90 levels.

The same is happening in the lower-priced print market. There was some jubilation at Sotheby's last week when 10 silk-screen prints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol went for pounds 115,000, close to their upper estimate. But an identical set at Sotheby's New York in 1989 fetched nearly double - dollars 495,000 (about pounds 315,000). A similar story can be told of the Chagall Daphnis and Chloe. A set sold for an astronomical pounds 1,815,000 at Sotheby's, London, in 1990 - in excess of pounds 1m more than the set sold in June. The market has a lot of ground to make up.

Most impressive at Sotheby's last week was the number of lots that found buyers after being rejected in June. Three lithographs from Bernard Buffet's 150 Paris Albums - of the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and Pont du Jour - were all unwanted in June at pre-sale estimates of pounds 4,000- pounds 6,000 and pounds 4,000- pounds 5,000 (Eiffel Tower). Last week, at reduced estimates of pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 each, they fetched respectively pounds 3,080, pounds 2,970 and pounds 3,410. Buffet is a favourite of the Japanese, once major buyers. They bid strongly at the sale.

Mr Weston pointed to a 1953 Miro, Lithographe Pour le Centenaire de L'Imprimerie Mourlot (edition of 75), as a market bellwether. Estimated at pounds 12,000-

pounds 16,000, one made pounds 15,400 last week. In May 1991 in New York, one estimated at dollars 50,000-dollars 60,000 made dollars 49,500 - about pounds 30,000.

Other popular and 'commercial' artists who found homes last week after rejection in June included Matisse, now enjoying unprecedented popularity in New York (with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art) and record auction prices. His Danseuse (debout, accoudee) from his sets of 10 dancers of 1927 (edition of 130), was carried off by a private buyer for pounds 3,300 against an estimate of pounds 2,000- pounds 2,500. In June the same print, estimated at pounds 3,000- pounds 4,000, was bought in at pounds 2,200.

There was a lively but discriminating interest in the abstracts of Howard Hodgkin and competitive bidding for a lithograph and an aquatint by Eduardo Chillida, reminiscent of the giant metallic structures that he thrusts into seashore rocks. Chillida's lithograph Nancy (1972), one of 100, made pounds 605 against an estimate of pounds 250- pounds 350, and his aquatint Kate III (1972), one of 50, estimated at pounds 600- pounds 800, made pounds 1,100.

With prices such as these - and in a depressed market - it is easy to forget that the modern market for signed limited-edition prints hardly existed until the 20th century and that these kinds of prints have actually acquired value only in the past 20 years.

(Photograph omitted)

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