SOTHEBY'S pulled the international art market back from the brink of collapse in New York on Wednesday.
Their roller-coaster sale of Impressionist and modern paintings kept hitting surprise highs and lows, but succeeded in demonstrating that there are still buyers around for expensive pictures. Christie's equivalent sale the previous day had seen 50 per cent unsold and the worst overall result for decades.
The highs of Sotheby's sale were a late work by the Austrian master Gustav Klimt, Dame mit Facher, of 1917-18, which made dollars 11,662,500 (pounds 7,775,000) where Sotheby's were hoping for dollars 7m or dollars 8m (pounds 4 1/2-5 1/2 m), and a Mondrian abstract of 1939-42 which made dollars 5,612,500 (pounds 3,741,000) compared with an estimate of about dollars 4m (pounds 2 1/2 m).
The lows were a big, late Monet vista of the Grand Canal in Venice which was unsold at dollars 5.7m (pounds 3.8m), and a very rare Brancusi marble, titled Bird (c. 1947), unsold at dollars 6m (pounds 4m). One-third of the works failed to find buyers.
The sale of the Klimt was a classic piece of saleroom drama. Seated in the front row was 81-year-old Serge Sabarsky, New York's principal dealer in modern German and Austrian paintings. He had sold the richly ornamental painting seven years ago to Wendell Cherry, a Texas millionaire. Cherry's widow had sent the painting to Sotheby's for sale.
Sabarsky is planning to turn his own private collection of German and Austrian pictures into a museum - scheduled to open next year on Fifth Avenue - and he was desperate to get the Klimt for it.
From about dollars 6m (pounds 4m) onwards, there were only two bidders, Sabarsky and the chairman of Sotheby's Europe, Simon de Pury, with his ear glued to a telephone.
As Sabarsky began to flag, shaking his head, then changing his mind and trying another bid, De Pury continued to signal with clockwork unconcern. The identity of the buyer remains a mystery.
The overall results suggested that prices in the field are slipping back. Nevertheless, the sale was dramatically more successful than Christie's and Sotheby's had clearly persuaded clients to drop their price expectations.
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