Auction houses gear up for New York art sales

NEW YORK Tue May 3, 2011 5:29am EDT

A Christie's employee poses for a photograph with artist Andy Warhol's ''Self-Portrait'' at Christie's auction house in London April 15, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

A Christie's employee poses for a photograph with artist Andy Warhol's ''Self-Portrait'' at Christie's auction house in London April 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Buoyed by record results amid a dramatic art market recovery and an increasingly global clientele, Christie's and Sotheby's are gearing up for spring auctions with nearly $1 billion of art for sale.

Last year proved one of the best with Christie's posting a record $5 billion in sales and Sotheby's making $774 million in revenue -- six times more than 2009 and its second highest ever apart from 2007.

It was a far cry from 2009's dire drop in sales amid the global financial crisis.

"We had not budgeted for such robustness last year," said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas. "It was rather amazing."

But he added that "it is still a market where you can't push prices -- that doesn't change."

What has changed is the ascendance of the contemporary and post-war sector, which has nipped at and sometimes eclipsed the once indomitable Impressionist and modern arena.

New collectors from Russia, Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore, Qatar and South America have also upped the ante, flush with cash and ready to create instant collections.

"We're seeing new buyers weekly who are prepared to spend anywhere from $1 million to $10 million," said Philip Hoffman, chief executive of The Fine Art Group, a London-based art investment house.

Whereas the once-static group of a few thousand buyers saw five or 10 newcomers at sales, Hoffman said there are now 1,000 new buyers in Hong Kong each ready to spend $1 million for a painting.

With demand outstripping supply as more collectors see art as a real asset and inflation hedge amid volatile financial markets, prices are again on the rise.

WARHOL TO FEATURE

The biggest sale will be held at Christie's on May 11, when 66 works led by pair of iconic Andy Warhol self portraits -- his first and one of his last before his death in 1987 -- are expected to fetch from $226 million to $316 million.

The Warhols' provenance could not differ more. Estimated at $20 million to $40 million, a four-image 1963 work in hues of blue was commissioned by Detroit collector Florence Barron, who paid the rising star $1,600, some of it on the instalment plan. It is being sold by her family.

A much later work, one of Warhol's final self-portraits reportedly purchased by billionaire collector Peter Brant in 2002 for $3.2 million, is expected to fetch $40 million.

Analysts say U.S. buyers are still the major market for such works from the post-war period.

"The hedge fund guys can afford to do whatever they want," said Baird Ryan, the former managing partner of investment firm Art Capital Group who currently advises clients on buying and selling art. "They have been collecting for years and don't bid recklessly."

Sotheby's, which kicks off the auctions on Tuesday with its Impressionist and modern sale, also boasts a big Warhol, "Sixteen Jackies," and Jeff Koons' "Pink Panther" sculpture, each estimated to sell for $25 million.

Phillips de Pury & Co. is staging a $100 million contemporary sale, its biggest ever, led by yet another Warhol, "Liz #5," a portrait of recently deceased Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor, which could fetch about $25 million.

On the Impressionist and modern side, Sotheby's has a group of 10 Picassos led by "Femme lisant (Deux personnages)," a portrait of the artist's mistress Marie-Therese Walter estimated to sell for up to $35 million.

Christie's is touting a $25 million Cubist Picasso, "Les femmes d'Alger, version L," and Monet's "Les peupliers," a pristine masterpiece from the artist's celebrated poplars series which is expected to fetch $20 million to $30 million. (Editing by Michelle Nichols and Patricia Reaney)