When Picasso’s Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker) a prized blue-period painting of the artist’s friend, a raunchy looking figure shrouded in tobacco smoke, was hammered down at Christie’s London auction Wednesday night, it sold for a staggering $52 million. What could that possibly mean? After all, Britain is racked by an austerity crisis, the Dow is barely squeaking along, and commercial real estate is still dicey on both sides of the pond.
“That was the second highest price for a work of art sold by Christie’s in London,” trumpeted a Christie’s spokesperson. Even so, naysayers point out the Picasso portrait price fell short of its $60 million high estimate despite being chased by three bidders. In some ways, the art market has not moved to a solid recovery.
“Well, with estimates getting higher, there’s buyer resistance,” said London pictures dealer James Roundell. Even Ed Dolman, Christie’s CEO, admitted to a shift in buyer confidence. "There are more collectors with more money to spend than ever before, but they are still more discerning than pre-2008," says Dolman.
Still, Andrew Lloyd Webber had plucked up that same Picasso at Sotheby’s New York for $29.1 million back in 1995. But Lloyd Webber’s in a bit of divesting mode right now: his Trump Tower duplex is up for grabs for $19 million—a fraction of the price tag of the Picasso (which did please him).
In all, Christie’s auction raked in $226.5 million, the highest total ever for an art auction in Britain. That figure fell $16.4 million short of their low estimate for the entire sale. Experts say buyers from emerging markets are holding back. “But compared to their auction held here a single year ago, it’s a vast improvement,” says Manhattan private dealer Fran Kaufman. In June 2009, Christie’s only pulled in $60 million for their entire Impressionist and Modern evening sale, indicating the tenor of the financial crisis.
Yet, last night wasn’t all smooth sailing. Christie’s failed to move a Monet lily series picture, an evanescent rendering of the Impressionist painter’s acclaimed lily pond in Giverny, France. Given mega dealer Larry Gagosian’s current exhibition of 27 late Monet paintings of that very pond in his Chelsea, New York, gallery, that particular niche is considered a hot ticket these days. In the London salesroom, the artist’s Nymphéas was estimated to make $45-$60 million but only attracted a lone phone bidder who stopped at $43.3 million.
Sotheby’s sale had its own hits. Hedge funder Steve Cohen, who has said he is moving toward more Post-War art, was unloading an Edouard Manet. That 1878 self-portrait went for $29.4 million, though it had been expected to bring as much as $43 million.
Both auction houses’ sales the prior night were in marked contrast to this year’s May New York sales when a 1932 Picasso portrait skyrocketed to $106.5 million, the most costly work ever sold at auction.
At Christie’s, some clients cut back on their shopping sprees. For example, Manhattan billionaire Wilbur Ross and his wife Hilary Geary were cautious in buying. Ross vied for a monumental Joan Miro towering over five feet high but dropped out of the bidding. A telephone bidder took the picture for $7.7 million.
But a Henry Moore Maquette for King and Queen, a mere 10 inch high bronze from an edition of ten jumped past its $740,000-$1 million estimate selling for an impressive $2.5 million. “It is such an iconic piece, the price was right,” says London dealer Peter Osborne who snapped up an equally important Moore at Christie’s day sale.
Dealers all across London are betting heavily on a recovery. The inaugural Masterpiece Fair, a dealer-run initiative, is an index of that optimism. The fair kicked off the same night as Christie’s auction.
“We’re about a new type of fair, one crossing over into other categories of luxury,” says Harry Apter, fifth generation owner of Apter-Fredericks, one of the 117 participating dealers. Fair “categories” besides his own 18th century English furniture offerings include a 1932 Bugatti for $3.2 million from a vintage car dealership, a 1915 silver landau carriage, glittering chunky pink diamonds from Asprey, and rare vintage wines. All that luxury amounted to $1.5 billion of goods on the fair floor, and the vernissage drew the likes of Mick Jagger, Giorgio Armani, Valentino and members of the royal family of Qatar.
Sales included a George IV ornately carved mahogany table, a pair of Regency armchairs for well over $60,000 and English Tourbillion pocket watch for close to $150,000 to a US collector. London picture dealer Offer Waterman clinched deals for a total of six British contemporary paintings and a Modernist sculpture.
Already, this new show tells of a steadier art market.
Brook Mason is US Correspondent of The Art Newspaper and writes on design for artnet.com daily magazine. She is a contributing author of The International Art Markets: The Essential Guide for Collectors and Investors.