Masterpieces flop at auction

November 7, 2008 12:00 am

, NEW YORK, November 7 – A major auction of masterpieces found few buyers, confirming that the global financial crisis is wreaking havoc on the art market.

The auction room at Christie’s in New York was unusually subdued as 85 works of impressionist and modern art went on the block, no less than 44 percent of them failing to attract buyers.

There is still money in the rarefied circles of international art collectors, but not the kind that in previous years sparked intense bidding wars and dizzy profits for sellers.

"We are in what is obviously a very difficult financial time for the world," said Christie’s Christopher Burge, who headed the auction.

One of the star items, Pablo Picasso’s surrealist "Deux personanages (Marie-Therese et sa soeur lisant)," dating from 1934, fetched 18 million dollars — the lower end of its pre-auction estimate, which had gone as high as 25 million dollars.

Of those that did sell, 11 percent went for more than their estimate.

One of these was Juan Gris’ "Livre, pipe et verre" from 1915, selling at 20.8 million dollars. The target had been 12.5 to 18.5 million dollars.

"Improvisation" by Expressionist master Wassily Kandinsky sold for 17 million dollars, where the estimates were for 15-20 million dollars.

Other big-ticket items performed even more disappointingly for Christie’s.

The painting "Pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine," by Gustave Caillebotte, sold for 8.4 million dollars, the lower end of the estimate. A Giacometti sculpture of three stick-like figures sold for 11.5 million dollars, below the 14 million dollar lower estimate.

On Monday, rival auction house Sotheby’s also experienced a difficult night for its impressionist and modern works.

There were several impressive sales, including 60 million dollars for an abstract painting by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, but many other works, including paintings by Picasso and Degas, did not sell.

Experts said there was still demand for top-of-the-range works, but that in general the market has taken a hit as wealthy collectors assess damage on the stock markets.

The art market will be put to the test again next week, when contemporary sales — which have in the past commanded vast prices — take place.

By comparison, last spring in New York a painting by Claude Monet, "Le Pont du chemin de fer a Argenteuil," sold for 41.4 million dollar and a Francis Bacon triptych went for an astounding 86.2 million dollars.

Burge said at a press conference after the auction that he was surprised things were not much worse, given the state of major economies around the world.

"It seems remarkable that you can even sell anything. All this is really complex," he said.

One factor, he said, is that "many dealers take advantage of the situation to buy, but the Gris for example has been bought by a private collector. There’s definitely enough money around."


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