Friday, May 14, 2010

Art Auction Trends

The cover story on the Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal for 14 May is about some post-1870 painters who are performing better or worse than previously for the auctioneer's gavel. (At the time this is written, the article can be found here.)

Highlighted "winners" are Alexander Calder, Pierre-August Renoir, Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns and graffiti-spawned Jean-Michel Basquiat. Downsliders mentioned are Pierre Bonnard, Richard Prince, Kees Van Dongen, Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch.

Some highlights from Kelly Crow's article include:

But the playing field has been transformed by recession, and dozens of other top artists have been boosted or derailed by the boom-and-bust cycle. Some of the biggest stars from the art market's peak, such as Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, have been largely absent from auctions recently.

On the rise are Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Salvador Dali, names that a few years ago were unfashionable in some art circles. In recent years, some Western buyers dismissed their work as passé —crowd-pleasing but uninteresting. New art collectors, however, tend to gravitate to the European Impressionists that are pretty and accessible. Newly wealthy Asian buyers have been bidding up Renoirs and Monets. ...

Dealers say Renoir's soft-focus depictions of Victorian women and children are a favorite of Asian collectors, who have begun buying up iconic pieces from the Western canon. They're starting, as many new buyers do, with the broadly appealing Impressionists. Renoir's prices are lower than those of older peers like Monet.

[Regarding Calder...] The Philadelphia sculptor of kinetic abstract sculptures has floated above the recession. He had a banner year in 2009, with a record $41.5 million worth of his art selling at auction, according to Artnet, a firm that monitors sales. Six of his priciest pieces sold during the doldrums, including the 1934 mobile, "Five Pieces of Wood," which Sotheby's in London sold last June for $4.2 million. On Wednesday, another pair of mobiles sold for a combined $5.2 million.

American collectors say part of the reason for the strong sales was that the artist had been undervalued for too long, a fact that became clear as other art prices dropped. ...

Now, Basquiat's asking prices have dropped to between $2 million and $6 million and American Baby Boomers appear to be rushing back in to take advantage of the lower price tags. ...

Last fall, this Dutch master of Fauvism [Van Dongen] seemed poised to enjoy a surge when Sotheby's in New York sold his creamy spare portrait, "Young Arab," for a record $13.8 million. Russian buyers were flocking then to his emerald-and-navy portraits of women. Since then, however, Russian collectors seem to have shifted back to homegrown favorites with a similar palette, like Natalia Goncharova, and U.S. buyers haven't stepped in to fill the void. ...

During the peak years of 2006 and 2008, prices for Mr. Prince's work soared. In 2008, the artist's works sold for a combined $68.3 million at auction, but signs of trouble began to emerge: That year, at least nine pieces sold for less that their low asking prices, indicating that buyers and sellers were no longer in agreement on where his auction prices should be set....

Mr. Prince has one group of influential supporters: museum curators. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently mounted major Prince shows.

I'm perpetually astonished at the high prices modernist and PoMo artists command, though I'm not surprised about the French Impressionists. As this book suggests, they have been a "safe" investment for many decades.

And I'm curious about Van Dongen being mentioned. In most histories of post-1900 painting, he's been more a footnote than a highlight, so I hadn't realized that some of his works command very nice prices. I find Van Dongen the man interesting and have an odd ambivalence about his art; I probably shouldn't like it, yet I can't ignore it. One of these days I must write a post about him if for no other reason than to get my thoughts better sorted.

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