May 1, 2009 / 6:12 PM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 1-Smaller lots, lower prices seen in NY art auctions

(Adds results of London sale, paragraph 6)

* Houses offering pared down, tightly edited sales

* Consigners reluctant to sell in down market

By Christopher Michaud

NEW YORK, May 1 (Reuters) - On the eve of another art auction season staged against a backdrop of chaotic global financial markets, the days of the $300 million dollar sale are over, at least for now.

“The market is in free fall, we should be clear about that,” said Ian Peck, president of the art-related financial services firm Art Capital Group. “There’s been a massive contraction, with downward pressure on pricing.”

The spring season, which begins in earnest on Tuesday with an Impressionist sale at Sotheby’s, is expected to feature largely pared down sales that speak to leaner times even though some items have estimated values of up to $24 million.

A year ago Sotheby’s BID.N and Christie’s each sold some $600 million worth of fine art at their Impressionist and contemporary evening sales. This year each hopes to bring in about $200 million.

Last year’s autumn sales, largely assembled before financial markets began collapsing in September, commanded only two-thirds of the revenue expected.

In February, a Christie’s auction of Impressionist and Modern art in London raised more than 63 million pounds (about $94 million), coming in at the lower end of a forecast range of 60 and 87 million pounds.

“Our issue hasn’t been the buyers,” said Marc Porter, president of Christie’s Americas. “If the works are right and the estimates are right, there is interest.”

But consignors, or would-be sellers, view selling “as optional at the (price) levels we’re seeing. Only a relative few felt they had to sell” now.

“Markets crave stability,” Porter said. “Until people see that it’s stabilized, they were reluctant to consign.”

FRESH TO MARKET

Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht said, “Sellers have had more trepidation. Our best clients are saying now is the time to buy,” but would-be consigners seem content to wait it out.”

Peck said fine art moves in tandem with high-end real estate, and “if you have luxury Manhattan real estate, this is not the time to sell it.”

While a few collectors have been forced to sell by misfortune, and there are the usual estate sales, a general reticence has cut the size of sales by up to half.

“Work that is fresh to the market, soberly priced and of very high quality” will move, Ruprecht said.

Porter said the slimmer pickings could work to the market’s ultimate advantage by creating pent-up demand, whether for this season or next.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s said they focused this season on works of impeccable quality and provenance that are fresh to the market. Some have never before been sold at auction.

PRIVATELY OWNED TREASURES

Sotheby’s Impressionist night is led by Picasso’s 1938 portrait of his daughter Maya, “The artist’s daughter at two-and-a-half with boat.” Estimated to sell for $16 million to $24 million, it remained in Picasso’s own collection until his death and has been privately owned since the 1980s.

Giacometti’s bronze “Le Chat,” also $16 million to $24 million, spent the past four decades in the same collection.

Christie’s top Picasso is “Musketeer with pipe,” a late work expected to fetch $12 million to $18 million. Max Ernst’s “A curse on you mothers” has never been auctioned and is estimated at $7 million to $9 million.

On the contemporary side, which has seen staggering price spikes in recent years, Christie’s is featuring the collection of philanthropist Betty Freeman led by Hockney’s “Beverly Hills Housewife,” estimated at $6 million to $10 million. Works by Lichtenstein, Warhol, Diebenkorn and Basquiat are expected to sell for about $5 million.

Sotheby’s star lot is Jeff Koons’ “Baroque egg with bow” (turquoise/magenta), one of the artist’s vibrant sculptures, estimated at $6 million to $8 million. (Editing by Daniel Trotta and Xavier Briand)

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