Last year, when the recession meant no business for any art dealers, pundits would say that they had welcomed the art market crash of 1990 because it had cleaned out the speculators. Now that a partial recovery has started, the first buyers to return are investment-oriented collectors.
Although the auction rooms ensure their anonymity, they give themselves away by paying for famous names without realising how bad the pictures are that they are buying. Bad Chagalls and Renoirs were selling buoyantly, apparently to moneyed American first-time buyers. Both artists appeal to beginners by combining a famous name with chocolate- boxy colours.
Stealing the headlines, however, was a bidding battle between two billionaires which carried the price of a Cezanne still life, Les Grosses Pommes, painted circa 1890-94, to dollars 28,602,500 ( pounds 19.7m).
'In today's market the proper price was dollars 15m,' one dealer said next day. 'Yesterday I was negotiating the sale of another good Cezanne but after last night's price the deal is dead. My buyer wouldn't be interested at that kind of price - but the seller is going to take it as the new market benchmark.'
The Cezanne, reputedly bought by the ageing Greek shipowner, Stavros Niarchos, had a powerful impact on the market. It was included in Sotheby's evening sale on Tuesday with an estimate of dollars 12m, along with a Matisse portrait, La Mulatresse Fatma, painted in Morocco in 1912, which went for dollars 14,302,500 (estimate dollars 10m) and a Renoir garden scene, Femmes dans un Jardin of 1873, which fetched dollars 6,712,500 (estimate dollars 2.5m-dollars 3.5m).
The latter two prices were buoyant but reasonable; the Matisse comes from a rare period and the Renoir is a very successful early work - Sotheby's admitted before the sale that their estimate was too low. Apart from the three top paintings, however, prices for secondary works were lowish and 36 per cent of the lots went unsold.
When Christie's mounted their major sale of modern pictures 24 hours later, the successful sale of the Cezanne had made an impact, and they sold 80 per cent of their pictures.
The first lot in the sale, a very indifferent early Pissarro, went unsold, since the owner, inspired by the Cezanne price, had rung up Christie's earlier in the day to raise his reserve. It apparently did not occur to him that the kind of people who pay millions for a great Cezanne do not want a muzzy painting of sheep on a country road at dollars 300,000-dollars 400,000.
After that the beginners paid through the nose for pretty pictures. Renoir's Leontine Lisant of 1909 made dollars 2,972,500 and a rotten Renoir vase of roses made dollars 332,500, both in line with ambitious estimates.
The top-priced Chagall was Fleurs, a big bunch of flowers of c1925, at dollars 992,500.
Christie's also managed to sell a very large early Monet called La Jetee du Havre. Monet conceived it as a show-off exhibition piece; it is more than 7ft wide. He submitted it to the Paris Salon in 1868 but the jury rejected it.
Before the auction, most insiders thought that Christie's would be lucky to sell it. Private collectors, it was thought, would be put off by both the size and the style - Monet was only 28 and not yet painting in the Impressionist manner. Buoyed up by Cezanne, however, three or four private collectors were prepared to bid, and the picture sold to a European at dollars 9,682,500.
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