International Art Market: Impressionism gives way to home-grown realism

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A MAJOR shift in collectors' tastes has been highlighted by the summer's first important art auctions. While contemporary art sales and Impressionists crashed in New York, the 'other' 19th century - high finish, academic pictures - went great guns, especially the home-grown American school, and Latin American collectors came back into the market for their own 19th- and 20th-century art.

While major works by Jasper Johns and Monet were left unsold, the two highlights of the month were turn-of-the-century realist paintings.

An almost chocolate-boxy Viennese portrait of A Lady with a Fan by Gustave Klimt made a stunning dollars 11,662,500 ( pounds 7.8m) on 11 May, far beyond Sotheby's pre- sale forecast of dollars 7m. Klimt is the biggest name of the Vienna Secession school but in this late work he had indulged himself by painting a model with her dress slipping off her shoulder.

Two weeks later a sexy Spanish dancer, painted in 1880 by John Singer Sargent, scored dollars 7,592,500. Much influenced by the Impressionists, Sargent was America's most popular Belle Epoque portraitist. Sotheby's had cautiously suggested a price in excess of dollars 4m.

Christie's confirmed the trend by selling Winslow Homer's sunlit picture of a young boy whittling a stick - Whittling Boy of 1873 - for dollars 1,102,500.

United States collectors, who make up the richest core of picture buyers world-wide, still seem to take an investment approach to art buying. While they were avoiding French Impressionists as overpriced, they bid strongly for their US followers - including Sargent and Homer. Good pictures by US Impressionists still cost less than bad pictures of the French school.

Their investment spree in the Old Master field, however, seems to be running out of steam. Americans do not generally like Old Masters as much as modern pictures but have recently been buying them because they looked cheap.

Sotheby's and Christie's had lined up a feast of easy Dutch masters and Italian views two weeks ago, but the collectors stayed away. Half the lots in the two auctions were left unsold.

Collectors more interested in art than money held their fire for a Frans Post Brazilian Landscape of 1640, one of only six landscapes that the only 17th-century Dutch painter to visit South America made during his stay in Brazil. The price was driven to more than double Sotheby's estimate at dollars 3,577,500.

The new enthusiasm for 19th- century Academic art spread into the sculpture field. At Sotheby's in London a 3ft marble sculpture of a naked girl donning a golden belt, La Ceinture Doree, made by Prosper d'Epinay in 1874 for the Paris Salon, was bid to pounds 129,100 against an estimate of pounds 50,000- pounds 70,000.

In New York the collection of 19th-century sculpture formed by Joey and Toby Tannenbaum sold well, in spite of pushy estimates. Only 35 out of 155 lots were left unsold and a 7ft white marble Perseus and Andromeda scored dollars 343,500, marginally in excess of forecast.

The large number of lots left unsold in nearly every field of the market underlined the fact that the number of buyers around is still limited. They appear to be influenced by where the art works come from, digging deep when a great private collection is for sale.

All the sensations of the May auctions came from the collection of the late Wendell Cherry, who poured the profits of a hospital chain into expensive art in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Both the Klimt and the Sargent paintings came from his collection.

And on 20 May, Sotheby's mounted a sale of his furnishings and works of art which scored more fancy prices. A majestic combined library table, filing cabinet and clock made in France around 1715, whipped up from ormolu, bronze figures and rich inlays, made dollars 2,202,500 while a 2ft 17th-century bronze of Hercules Wrestling with Achelous, which formerly belonged to King Louis XIV of France, made dollars 1.8m.