ART PRICES are rising but it is still a buyer's market. That was the message from the auction rooms in June, traditionally the top month of the year for international art sales.
Impressionist and modern picture sales provide the key barometer. Paris as usual kicked off ahead of London with remarkably healthy results - 86 per cent sold at Picard's 14 June sale including a Bonnard interior at 5.5m francs ( pounds 663,000).
Briest, another Paris auctioneer, had the audacity to offer 61 works by Andre Masson from the stock of the bankrupt Gallerie Urban of Japan, 'sold by order of the liquidator, Mr Koji Takeuchi of the Sakura Kyodo Law Offices, Tokyo'. Urban, with outlets in Paris and New York, was one of the key players of the Eighties boom and collapsed owing millions of pounds. The Massons went for bargain-basement prices but 42 of them found buyers, with a top price of 330,000 francs ( pounds 40,000) for Les Musiciens of 1923-24.
For once, the results of Christie's and Sotheby's evening sales in London were identical: 38 per cent of the lots on offer unsold but the top items finding buyers at high prices. Christie's got rid of a sugar-sweet Renoir girl carrying a basket of flowers at pounds 5,721,500; it was the kind of picture the Japanese ran up in price in the Eighties and it could have flopped. Sotheby's got a top price of pounds 3,026,500, in line with expectations, for a Kandinsky abstract of 1937.
A group of 22 paintings and sculptures sent for sale by a direct descendent of Paul Durand-Ruel, the Paris dealer who set the Impressionists on the path to fame, included a number of remarkable bargains - most of which were picked up by the Nehmad brothers, international dealers who keep their vast stock of paintings in Switzerland. They scored a Renoir still life at pounds 144,500 against an estimate of pounds 300,000- pounds 400,000, and the same artist's Jeune femme au chapeau noir, estimated at pounds 1m- pounds 1.5m, cost them pounds 694,500.
Contemporary art was selling again as long as the price was right; Christie's got into trouble by taking in a large collection of French post-war art with reserves higher than the market would stand. Apparently they were competing with Sotheby's to get the property for sale and pitched their bid too high.
Sotheby's sold 75 per cent of the works on offer but their experiment with selling performance art - or rather souvenirs of performance art - flopped. They had a large group of works from the estate of the avant- garde cellist Charlotte Moorman; there were buyers only for main line items - such as two necklaces made from transistors by the famous Korean artist Nam June Paik which made pounds 2,645 and pounds 1,851.
How far the popularity of contemporary art has risen in the past 30 years was underlined at the sale of the corset designer Illa Kodicek's collection at Christie's.
It included a rectangle of linen painted by Yves Klein in his patented tone of blue, IKB 267, at pounds 110,000. Kodicek bought it at Klein's first London exhibition in 1960 which was held at Victor Musgrave's Gallery One. The asking price was pounds 12 but she beat Musgrave down to pounds 11, I am told by his executor, Monica Kinley.
The corseteer made ample amends by bequeathing the proceeds of the Klein sale to Musgrave's foundation for the promotion of Outsider art. No contemporary artists would demean themselves by accepting pounds 11 for a picture nowadays, or even 10 times that figure, to take account of inflation.
It is also striking that the market is now rating Victorian painters at prices formerly reserved for their Impressionist contemporaries. The pounds 1,651,500 paid for Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Roses of Heliogabalus on 11 June and the dollars 525,000 ( pounds 340,290) paid for Sir Edwin Landseer's Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller on 4 June seem to herald a significant shift in taste - back to story pictures painted with painstaking realism.
The shift in fashion is affecting German 19th-century pictures as well. The Friends of the Berlin National Gallery had to pay pounds 936,500, or three times estimate, for Eduard Gaertner's highly detailed view of the Schlossfreiheit in Berlin - a corner of the city currently in the course of restoration.
Since it was the big sales month, June saw an exceptional number of collections offered for sale. Art selected by one connoisseur's eye tends to inflame bidders, while a global reserve - allowing the auctioneer to sell a lot cheaply if another one has gone high - makes it easier to achieve a sell-out.
That was the case with the Durand- Ruel Impressionists, the McLendon collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins, the Meraux collection of 19th-century clocks, and the corporate collection of designs, furniture and architectural features by Frank Lloyd Wright put together by Thomas S Monaghan, president of Domino's Pizza Inc.
Monaghan had dominated the market in Lloyd Wright material for a decade and it was remarkable that the sale should be a sell-out without his presence in the room as a buyer. An oak dining-table and eight matching oak chairs, which the architect designed for Joseph W Husser's house in Chicago in 1899, made the top price at dollars 442,500 ( pounds 289,216).
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