U.S. News

NY art sales to tempt buyers with attractive prices

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Old Master painting sales will try to lure choosier buyers this month with lower price estimates as Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses adjust to a global art market dulled by the financial crisis.

Art values dropped in October when the U.S.-born economic meltdown engulfed the world and several art auctions fell far short of low pre-sale estimates, compelling rivals Sotheby’s and Christie’s to take a more cautious approach.

But encouraged by Old Master auctions in London in December -- where Sotheby’s hit high expectations with a $20 million sale and Christie’s fell shy of low estimates, reaping $30 million -- the auctioneers hope the genre will remain stable.

Sotheby’s Vice Chairman George Wachter told Reuters that by early October he knew he would have to cut as much mediocrity as possible from the January 29-30 New York sale, so 291 lots are on offer, about 120 less than last year.

“We cut out a tremendous amount of stuff and ... wherever I felt it was appropriate, I lowered estimates,” Wachter said. He predicted the sale could earn about $75 million.

Wachter said a painting that might have been estimated to sell for $2 million to $3 million was lowered to $1.5-2.5 million, and art valued at $400,000 to $600,000 might be forecast to fetch $350,000 to $450,000.

At Christie’s, which is holding it’s New York Old Masters sale on January 28-29, Nicholas Hall, international department head for Old Masters, said several lots will have no reserve price.

“I think that will generate considerable excitement,” he told Reuters.

Hall said Christie’s has about 300 lots for auction and hopes to sell between $25 million and $35 million.


Christie’s set out to fix “tempting estimates,” said Hall, who added that there had been “very few” cases where the auction house asked sellers to lower estimates because of the financial crisis.

“We’re happy Old Masters’ have proved resilient and that there really is demand,” he said. “What we feel less sure about is once you get above the $2-3 million mark the air could get quite thin. We have in this sale steered clear of testing the market with any $5 million and up pictures.”

Experts argue that Old Masters art, which has seen less spectacular growth than contemporary art in recent years, could prove the most resilient amid the economic turmoil.

Still, less Old Masters art is being sold.

“Whereas in 2004 we were selling 85 percent, today we’re selling 65 to 75 percent,” Wachter said. “I’m hoping to sell seven out of 10 ... In this market I would feel very pleased with that, as long as the good things did extremely well.”

Sotheby’s sale includes Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius,” estimated to sell for $12 million to $16 million and a pair of paintings by Dutch master Frans Hals, “The Portrait of a Man Holding Gloves,” ($8 million to $12 million), and “The Portrait of a Woman Holding a Handkerchief” ($7 million and $9 million).

Christie’s also has a Turner painting for sale, “The Brunig Pass from Meiringen, Switzerland,” ($1.5 million to $2.5 million), along with The Master of Memphis’ “The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and two shepherds” ($500,000 to $800,000) and Jean Simeon Chardin’s “Still life with a copper pot, a pitcher, fish, a glass, two nuts and an onion” ($1.2 million to $1.8 million).

“I predict that we will have a sell through (lot) rate here above 65 percent and maybe above 70 percent,” Hall said, which compares with last year’s rate of about 55 percent.

Editing by Mark Egan