THE ART market is a window on the mind-set of the very rich. Last November Bill Gates of Microsoft, who gets richer every time anyone anywhere in the world buys a computer, spent $30.8m (pounds 20m) on a 72-page manuscript written and illustrated by the left hand of Leonardo da Vinci. It is the highest price paid at auction for anything other than an Impressionist painting, and three times more than Christie's expected at the time. Why did he do it?
As well as being one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo was a visionary scientist whose mind was leaps ahead of his time; Bill Gates clearly identifies strongly with Leonardo's originality. The purchase was also a patriotic move. The manuscript, which contains Leonardo's musings on the nature of water and on cosmology, was the only one of his 65 surviving manuscripts in the United States. Bill Gates saw that it stayed there by outbidding the richest bank in Italy.
Then in May Andrew Lloyd Weber, who is apparently unable to stop himself from creating smash hit musicals, spent $29.2m (pounds 18.9m) on Picasso's Portrait of Angel Fernandes de Soto - the highest price paid at auction for a painting since the market crashed in 1990. Weber has built up a spectacular collection of Victor-ian paintings over the last 10 years but only stepped out his speciality twice. He spent pounds 10m in 1992 Cana-letto's View of Horseguards Parade, which he put on loan to the Tate ,and now nearly pounds 19m on a Picasso. Why?
Weber has a theory that Picasso's Blue Period paintings were influenced by Burne-Jones, the British Pre-Raphaelite master whose inter-national reputation stood high at the turn of the century. The theory is not shared by many art historians, but that doesn't matter to the composer. He had been looking for a Blue Period Picasso for some time.
It is now extremely hard to come by Blue Period Picassos - figurative works that are drenched in melancholy expressed by a dominant use of blue - although this is not the most attractive. Blue Period subjects par excellence are mothers and children or harlequins. Weber paid roughly double what the picture was worth. He seems to have got carried away when the bidding started to climb. The underbidder is believed to have been Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate, who owns one of the world's greatest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Generally speaking, when Niarchos wants a painting he buys it, irrespective of price.
The Leonardo and the Picasso were the two highest prices of the 1994- 95 auction season, and help illustrate what is happening in this curious market. The very rich have got their confidence back, which has meant that buyers can quite readily be found for works of really outstanding quality, and, very occasionally, bidding battles have driven prices back to their 1989-90 levels.
The1980s boom collapsed in 1990. After several false dawns there are now signs that serious recovery has begun. Christie's turnover is 13 per cent up on 1993-94 in sterling terms and Sotheby's one per cent. More than an expansion of the market, however, it reflects the weakness of the dollar, the currency in which most art deals are transacted. Collectors from countries with stronger currencies have found dollar prices cheap over the last year.
The middle market is still pretty weak. It is not unusual for up to half the lots on offer at a Christie's or Sotheby's sale to be left unsold. Dealers, as opposed to auctioneers, are still finding it hard to make a living and seldom buy for stock. The auctioneers have tried to replace them by encouraging private people to buy directly at auction - and more of them are doing this. But private buying is unpredictable and cannot underpin the market in the way dealer-buying used to. Private individuals buy what they want; they don't bid on everything that is going cheap.
Overall, the nature of the market is changing. In the 1980s art was bought as a speculation: buy in April, sell for double the price in September. This mentality vanished with the 1990 collapse, but the very rich and their financial advisors still take the view that it is sensible to keep a percentage of your portfolio in art. It is this kind of money that creates the fancy prices at the top of the market.
Geographically, the present recovery is being led by North America. Normally a major recession results in a shift of taste. But the Americans liked Impressionist and classic modern pictures best before the market collapse and that it what they are coming back to. It is currently the strongest sector of the picture market. Con-temporary and Old Master markets are still struggling and there are few buyers for Victorian pictures apart from Lloyd Weber.
There are exceptions, of course. Andy Warhol's Shot Red Marilyn made a healthy $3.6m (pounds 2.3m) in November 1994, approaching the $4.07 million it had made in 1989: in dollars at least; the strength of the yen must mean the Japanese consignor lost a lot of money. In December, a 17th-century Dutch painting, Hobbema's Wooded Landscape with Cottages, made $3.7m (pounds 2.40m) and in May Alma-Tadema's definitive Victorian extravaganza, The Finding of Moses, made $2.8m (pounds 1.8m).
Besides Europe and America, however, there is now a growing market in the Far East. Indeed, it has become the white hope of hard-pressed dealers over the last two years - they hope to find new buyers in Japan, Korea, Singa-pore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even mainland China.
Japan has more rich connoisseurs than anywhere else but they are not currently in a buying mood. Japanese speculators lost huge amounts of money in the 1990s crash and there are few collectors who dare to buy any works of art today. An unlucky Japanese collector off-loaded a Chinese Sung Dynasty vase at a Christie's sale in Hong Kong for HK$9.7m (pounds 774,000) in October 1994, having paid pounds 1.32m for it at Sotheby's London in 1989. The market in Chinese ceramics, works of art, jade jewellery and old and modern brush paintings is now dominated world-wide by wealthy Chinese collectors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The huge volume of excavated art that is smuggled out of mainland China has dramatically weakened the archaeological end of this market but rarities, especially the late imperial porcelains, are selling well. There have even been two or three successful auctions in mainland China over the last year. The local millionaires are beginning to put their money into art.
In countries where capitalism is just beginning to take hold, such as China and Russia, the few people who are making very large fortunes are starting to buy art. The Chinese are collecting Chinese art and the Russians are buying knick-knacks by Faberge and Russian paintings. A Russian collector set a new auction record for an icon when he bought a pair of 16th-century sanctuary gates for pounds 199,500 at Sotheby's last December.
In South-East Asia, according to Christie's chief executive Chris-topher Davidge, auction results are only the tip of the iceberg. The new millionaires do not like to draw attention to themselves by bidding at auction but Christie's, acting as a confidential agent of Western owners, has sold several major Impressionist pictures privately at prices above $10m. Watch this space! !
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies