American collectors lead art market revival: Geraldine Norman reviews some of the sale highlights of 1992, which was a very depressed year for many in the art world

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SIGNS OF an upturn in the art market have been seen in the past two months after a very depressed year.

The election of Bill Clinton as their next president had cheered up the Americans and once they began to bid more strongly, Europeans followed suit.

After a Matisse had fetched a record pounds 9m in New York, a great Kandinsky was bid to a record pounds 5.5m in London; the Getty Museum of Malibu in California spent pounds 4.95m on a Goya at Sotheby's, and two days later a Dutch dealer spent pounds 4.4m on a genre scene by the 17th-century master, Pieter de Hooch.

The new market interest embraced many fields. French furniture sold well in Monaco in early December, with an 18th-century library table by Weisweiler reaching pounds 995,000; in London a medieval bronze jug formed as a knight on horseback, which was estimated at pounds 50,000 to pounds 80,000, sold for pounds 660,000.

In June, the Fine Art and Antiques Fair at Olympia, London, was a disaster, with hardly any sales; in November, 2,000 visitors poured into the fair within the first four hours, and middle range furniture - which had been unsaleable earlier in the year - was among the best sellers.

The revival has not let Sotheby's and Christie's off the hook. Their turnover is still running at less than half the level of three years ago, although 1992 saw a marginal improvement over 1991 up 2 per cent at both houses. Both have announced redundancies over the last few weeks and both are raising their charges; in future they will grab a 15 per cent premium from buyers, instead of the present 10 per cent, on all lots worth less than pounds 30,000. The new charges will apply from Friday at Sotheby's and from 1 March at Christie's.

Despite the recession, there are still some very rich buyers around. In April, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber spent pounds 10.12m on a Canaletto view of London - now on loan to the Tate Gallery - and he set a new auction price record for a Victorian picture by paying pounds 1.65m for a dense evocation of Titania, Oberon and their fairy attendants by Richard Dadd, entitled Contradiction.

Another new force emerged at the top of the market in the form of a Milwaukee collector called Alfred Bader, who spent pounds 4.18m on a Rembrandt portrait of Johannes Uyttenbogaert in July, sold it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and turned up again in London in December to pay pounds 1,045,000 for Rubens' Entombment - which is depicted as such a horror story with wounds, and blood and tears that one would expect him to pass it on to a museum as well.

In 1991, during the Gulf war and its aftermath, rich Americans developed a puritan sense that it would be distasteful to spend a lot of money on art when such terrible things were happening. This attitude began to crumble at the major Impressionist and modern picture sales in May 1992 and collapsed entirely in the autumn, following the presidential election - which clearly made everyone feel more cheerful.

Two Matisse paintings made pounds 9.6m and pounds 7.3m in New York in November while a Monet made pounds 8m, well beyond the auctioneers' hopes. Both Sotheby's and Christie's had their best American paintings sales for two-and-a-half years, with a Georgia O'Keeffe at pounds 770,701 at Christie's and a Winslow Homer at the same price at Sotheby's.

Americans were prepared to spend in many other fields; a set of 10 massive Chinese pottery figures of the Tang dynasty were bought by Jo Frankel, an American dealer, for pounds 600,000, or almost double the estimate, at Christie's New York on 3 December.

That price was an exception in the Chinese field which is now almost entirely dominated by Chinese collectors based in Hong Kong, Taiwan or other locations in the Far East, such as Singapore or Bangkok.

There are not very many of them in the market; as a result Sotheby's and Christie's sales tend to contain a heavy proportion of unsold lots with one or two huge prices. A Hong Kong financier called Joseph Lau paid the highest price on record for Chinese ceramics at Sotheby's New York on 1 December: pounds 1.82m for an 18in wine jar decorated with carp in a pond and bearing the mark of the Emperor Jiajing (1796-1820). The London dealer, Giuseppe Eskenazi, was the underbidder.

The best feature of the post-recession market, however, is the renewed interest in art for its own sake, as witnessed by the fierce competition when anything really out of the ordinary comes on the market at any price level. Here are a few of the 1992 highlights:

7-8 April. Some 28,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain recovered from a South- east Asian junk wrecked off the coast of Vietnam around 1690 were sold by Christie's on behalf of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for pounds 4.2m (estimate pounds 1.5m).

14 April. A hitherto unknown album of drawings by Heinrich Fuseli (1741-1825), a romantic with a nice line in courtesans with naked bosoms, was sold at Christie's for pounds 748,440 (estimate pounds 300,000). The unnamed civil engineer who took the album into Christie's said he would 'take a taxi home' after the sale.

29 April. A collection of Indian miniature paintings formed in the golden days when they were pouring out of India (c. 1965-75) by John Bachofen von Echt, an Austrian financier, set new price levels for Indian paintings at Sotheby's, including a record pounds 143,000 (estimate pounds 80,000- pounds 120,000) for a Pahari miniature and pounds 77,000 (estimate pounds 20,000- pounds 30,000) for a Rajasthani miniature.

11 May. The leftovers of the collection of modern paintings formed by Douglas Cooper, the historian of Cubism, were sold from the estate of his adopted son and lover, Billy McArty Cooper, for pounds 12.1m - Billy died of Aids in 1991. A great Braque called Atelier VIII made pounds 4.3m.

20-22 May. Sotheby's sold furniture, silver and paintings from Jaime Ortiz- Patino's chateau outside Geneva for pounds 16.5m. He was moving because the Swiss authorities were making difficulties about his private golf course. He sold a spectacular pair of rococo silver ice buckets made in Paris in 1727 for pounds 1.1m and a Louis XVI chest of drawers painted with flowers for pounds 1.2m.

29 October. A group of 30 photographs by Alexander Rodchenko, which the family had given to a visiting photographer in the 1960s, and Christie's had estimated at pounds 200,000, were sold for pounds 495,000. His photograph, titled Girl with a Leica, set an new auction price record for any photograph at pounds 115,500.

17 November. Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, known as the 'punk Princess' on account of her clothes and friends, sold jewels and silver from the estate of her late husband, Prince Johannes, to the tune of pounds 9m (estimate pounds 7.5m) through Sotheby's in Geneva. A jewel encrusted snuffbox made for Frederick II of Prussia made pounds 1.16m, while the Societe des Amis du Louvre spent pounds 426,000 to recover a pearl and diamond tiara made for the Empress Eugenie.

(Photograph omitted)