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Art sales ended on a high note for some in 2009
By Robert Kyle

Raphael came to the rescue on Dec. 8 when his 12 by 8¾in chalk drawing, Head of a Muse, set a new record by a work on paper when it sold for $47.6 million at Christie’s in London. It fetched nearly double its high estimate and ignited new optimism in the market. The buyer was on the phone from the United States. The work was last offered for sale in the mid-19th century.

At the same auction, Rembrandt’s 1658 Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, sold for $32.9 million to a U.S. phone bidder identified in Bloomberg News as Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn. The consignor was Barbara Piasecka Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson company.

These prices were welcomed news to the global art market still struggling to rebound from the 2008 financial crisis. Bloomberg reported that the sale of high-value contemporary art took a big hit last year when major auction houses ceased providing consignors with price guarantees. Although Sotheby’s and Christie’s grossed a combined total of $483.3 million in art sold in New York and London in 2009 in their five evening sales, that figure is down from $1.97 billion in 2008 and $2.4 billion the year before.

“As soon as guarantees were taken off the table, sellers became uncertain,” Bloomberg quoted Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Fund in London. “Clients don’t want to see big-ticket works go to public auction and fail. A lot of people turned to discreet private sales at the auction houses,” Hoffman said.

In the first half of 2009, Christie’s sold more contemporary art privately than at auction, according to Bloomberg. During the first half of 2009 art demand declined in evening auctions in London and New York. At Christie’s February sale, bidders spent $13.6 million, the lowest total since 2004, said Bloomberg. For the first six months in 2009 the most expensive painting at major international auctions was $7.9 million paid for Beverly Hills Housewife. Christie’s in New York sold the 1966 David Hockney work.

Auction houses started slashing pre-sale estimates by as much as 50 percent to stimulate sales. When Sloans & Kenyon of Chevy Chase, Md., gave a $6,000-8,000 estimate to an unsigned 18th century oil of the Grand Canal in Venice, bidders from around the world smelled a deal. Instead, the painting went for $687,125 at the Sept. 27 auction. The artist may have been Marieschi or Canaletto.

Art buying trends began to shift in late 2009. Sotheby’s evening auction of contemporary art on Nov. 11 grossed $134.4 million, up from $125.1 million a year earlier. Sotheby’s benefited this year from Andy Warhol’s painting of 200 one-dollar bills that went for $43.8 million. Consignor Pauline Karpidas in London paid $385,00 for it in 1986.

Old Masters are getting a new look from investors wary of fluctuations in more modern art, Warhol excluded. In its art review of 2009, Bloomberg said, “Collectors responded to the financial crisis by selecting the best 20th century classics, Old Masters, wine and jewelry at international auctions. They shunned investment in some contemporary art as prices dropped by half.”

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