London auction houses sense ‘new gold rush’

London, February 12:

After record-breaking sales of impressionist, post-war and contemporary art, the London art market is in the ‘grip of the greatest art gold rush’ in 20 years.

The two main auction houses — Sotheby’s and Christie’s — confirmed that combined receipts of 130 million pounds ($230 million) from auctions this week were the highest total since 1989.

Altogether 10 world records were broken in the sales, which included a collection of masterpieces by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch as well as paintings by Paul Gauguin, Ludwig Kirchner and contemporary German artists such as Georg Baselitz and Franz Ackermann.

“The market is much more global than ever before,” said Christina Freyberg of Christie’s, “There is a lot of money around and people just buy what they really like.” The global trend in the demand for ‘high-quality paintings’ was confirmed by Melanie Clore, co-chairman of Sotheby’s. “When these works come up, there is global interest,” she said. Analysts said the sales saw an influx of newly moneyed collectors from Russia and Southeast Asia who were helping to fuel the most buoyant British art market since the late 1980’s when Japanese corporate buyers were dominant.

Much of the new spending power came from outside the ‘traditional art collecting bastions’ of Europe and America, with a new generation of collectors emerging from Taiwan, Singapore, India, Russia and Hong Kong, a leading art commentator said.

Freyberg said while the advance in technology and communications had a role to play in the surge, it was also true that the demand for post-war and contemporary art continued to rise.

‘New stars’ were emerging and new works were coming on to the market. “There are more works being created as we speak. The market is not saturated,” said Freyberg.

Christie’s, which boasted its best-ever global annual result of $3.2 billion in 2005, said this week’s sales had confirmed the ‘unprecedented strength,’ as well as increasingly international character of the post-war and contemporary market.

Last year, Christie’s expanded worldwide, opening offices in Dubai, its first representation in the Middle East, and widening its presence in India and Russia. During this week’s London sales, a collection of eight Munch paintings sold at Sotheby’s for 16.9 million pounds. It included the Norwegian’s masterpiece ‘Summer Day’ which sold for 6.2 million pounds, nearly double the estimate and a record for the artist.

A new world record was also set for the Lithuanian-born French expressionist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) for his portrait of a beef carcass. The work, ‘Le Boeuf Écorché’ (Flayed Beef Carcass), sold for 7.8 million pounds. But the booming market also saw unexpected prices for largely unknown artists, such as Natalia Goncharova, a Russian painter influenced by cubism. Her 1912 work, ‘Les Rameurs’ (The Rowers), sold at Chr-istie’s for 1.2 million pounds — nearly five times the estimate of 250,000 pounds.

Gauguin’s painting ‘Deux Femmes’ (Two Women) fetched 12.3 million pounds at Sotheby’s this week, while ‘Frauenbildnis in weissem Kleid’ (Woman in a White Dress) by German expressionist Ludwig Kirchner sold for a record price of 4.9 million pounds at Christie’s.

The buying frenzy continued at Christie’s with the sale of Francis Bacon’s ‘Study From Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez’ for 5.26 million pounds and Lucian Freud’s ‘Man in a String Chair,’ which sold for 4.15 million pounds.

London auctioneers have denied that the market was in danger of repeating the faults of the late 1980s.