AUCTION houses are still waiting for the recession to lift. Sotheby's saw 41 per cent of the Old Master drawings offered on 18 April left unsold and 53 per cent of its European sculptures and works of art three days later; Christie's was left with 48 per cent of its Islamic art and Oriental miniatures unsold on 26 April.
The worst results were in sales where little of quality was offered. But the high failure rates underline how narrow the market has become.
In Paris at the weekend, four paintings that came up for sale four years ago were back in the salerooms because the buyers had not paid for them. Unfortunately for the sellers - the leading dealers Lucien and Marcelle Bourdon - prices this time round were nowhere near as good. The original sale had taken place at the height of the market.
Robert Delaunay's vibrant Eiffel Tower (1929), which sold for Fr6m ( pounds 600,000) in 1990, fetched only Fr2.25m ( pounds 268,000); Soutine's incisive Portrait of a Boy (1928), which made Fr4.3m ( pounds 430,000) last time, went for Fr1.85m ( pounds 221,000); and Leger's Cycle (1929) which reached Fr5.2m ( pounds 520,000) in 1990, went for Fr2m ( pounds 239,000). Most dramatically, Dubuffet's At First (1964), which made Fr7.4m ( pounds 740,000) in 1990, sold for only Fr2.37m ( pounds 283,000).
Earlier in the month, there were only two outstandingly successful auctions - sports memorabilia, which Sotheby's offered in New York on 9 April, and its sale of Chinese paintings in Taipei, Taiwan, the next day.
In New York, out of the 628 mementoes, only one was unsold. A record price was set for a baseball bat when the one used by 'Babe' Ruth to hit 56 home runs in 1921 fetched dollars 63,000 ( pounds 42,800).
The Taipei sale comprised 700 antique paintings and a few modern ones from the collection of a 96-year-old Chinese warlord, Zhang Xueliang. Every lot was sold, for a total of pounds 3.4m, almost three times Sotheby's high estimate. A Song dynasty hand scroll painted with a spray of peach blossom was bought for pounds 424,359, four times estimate, by a Taiwanese collector.
British pictures have been a drag on the market throughout the recession; there are not enough wealthy English collectors to go round. This was underlined when almost half the British paintings offered by Sotheby's on 13 April were left unsold; at Christie's two days later, 37 per cent of the lots were left without buyers. But great British eccentricities still bring money out of the woodwork - a painting from about 1677, artist unknown, that depicts the royal gardener presenting the first pineapple raised in England to Charles II was sold to Christopher Gibbs, the Bond Street dealer, for pounds 463,500.
The Old Master paintings offered one week later were not a distinguished lot, but sold a little better than their British counterparts. However, with 22 per cent unsold at Sotheby's and 26 per cent at Christie's, even this sector is not booming.
Sotheby's had failed to spot the star lot in its sale, View of the Grand Canal, which it attributed to the 'Venetian School, 18th century' and estimated at pounds 10,000- pounds 15,000; dealers decided it was by Marieschi and ran the price to pounds 364,500. Christie's were well aware that their Canaletto, Capriccio, was a winner, and it sold for pounds 2.2m to the London dealer, Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox.
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