LONDON (Reuters) - One art publication has likened the record-breaking summer sales just ended in London to walking on water, yet auction houses say there is no miracle behind the headline soaring prices that have defied broader economic gloom.
Three weeks of sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and smaller rivals wound up on Thursday, and while the rarest treasures from the 14th century to the present day were snapped up, plenty of less desirable lots went unsold.
Christie’s, the world’s biggest auctioneer, sold art worth around 385 million pounds ($600 million) in total and registered artist records for John Constable, Yves Klein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Sotheby’s, its closest rival, raised $346 million, or $411 million if the Gunter Sachs collection sale held in London in May is included.
It also set a record, for Spanish artist Joan Miro, whose 1927 “Peinture (Etoile Bleue)” fetched $36.9 million.
Elsewhere in that same auction, however, prices failed to live up to expectations, underlining what some experts see as a “disconnect” between the very best and everything else.
“To read the headlines, it seems all is well in the art market. Not so,” said The Art Newspaper editor-at-large Georgina Adam in a column for the Financial Times.
“The very top end is doing well, fuelled by the mega-wealthy whose fortunes have not been dented by the financial crisis. But further down the scale, the picture is very different. Smaller galleries are being squeezed - quietly, a number have closed.”
The appetite for the most precious treasures is there for all to see. In May, the only copy of Edvard Munch’s seminal image “The Scream” still in private hands came up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York.
After nearly 15 minutes of intense bidding, made in million-dollar increments, it sold for $120 million including commission, a new auction record for any work of art.
The two previous records were also recent - Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” fetched $106.5 million in May, 2010 having sold for $19,800 in 1951, and in February the same year Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man I” made $104.3 million.
The value of private deals, made away from the glare of the auction saleroom, is even more staggering.
In a widely reported but as yet unconfirmed 2011 exchange, Qatar snapped up Paul Cezanne’s famous “The Card Players” - the only version not in a museum - for $250 million.
At a time of recession, stagnating growth, euro zone crisis and stock market uncertainty, art prices can be mind-boggling.
Yet auction houses say there is a growing class of super-rich collectors from Beijing to Moscow and London to New York who view paintings and sculptures as objects of beauty, status symbols or investment tools - or a combination of all three.
A report by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management published in June estimated that the number of millionaires rose 0.8 percent in 2011 to a record 11 million, although their collective wealth fell 1.7 percent to $42 trillion.
Art will attract only a tiny proportion of that, but at a time when returns in other investments are so meagre, some experts say art is as good a place as any to put your money.
Others counter that the picture is not quite so compelling after taking into account insurance and storage costs and the fact that the market is relatively illiquid.
Individual collectors aside, another major factor behind the art market boom has been institutional buyers, most notably the Middle East and in particular Qatar, who are stocking up on art to fill museums due to open in the region in the coming years.
The European Fine Art Foundation estimates the art market was worth 46.1 billion euros in 2011, up 63 percent from 2009 when it slumped during the financial crisis.
But the pace of growth slowed in 2011 from the previous year and was driven largely by China, which overtook the United States as the world’s biggest market for art and antiques.
The Chinese market is slowing - the ArtTactic analytical group estimated auction sales by the four main players this spring were down 32 percent on autumn 2011.
Other potential sources of concern are weakening sentiment - ArtTactic’s contemporary art market confidence indicator fell nine percent to 48 between January and June - and the “disconnect” between the very best and the rest.
Little wonder that auction houses are seeking out important works that have rarely, if ever been offered for sale.
“There is no way you can regard the art market as one thing,” said Harry Dalmeny, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s UK.
“Areas of the market are driven by a finite supply of great objects that will always be looked for and therefore, at the top end, the prices will get greater,” he told Reuters.
He acknowledged that auction houses had to take economic weakness into account when putting values on lesser works, while Christie’s CEO Steven Murphy believed that a cooling off in some of the more overheated sectors of the market was a good thing.
“Masterpieces are still reaching great values and the next rank are reaching good values which I think is a healthy outcome,” he told Reuters. “The middle value works, if you bought them four years ago, you still made a great investment.”
In the recent London sales the top lots were, predictably, those considered important and rare, while plenty of others struggled to reach their low estimates or sell at all.
Sotheby’s posted an auction record for Miro, and Christie’s set new benchmarks for Yves Klein ($36.8 million for “Le Rose du bleu (RE 22)”), Jean-Michel Basquiat ($20.2 million for “Untitled”) and John Constable ($35.2 million for “The Lock”).
Money, it appears, is no object. But in the case of the Constable, you might spare a thought for the seller.
Baroness Carmen “Tita” Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Spanish aristocrat who owns many other paintings and reportedly a fortune in assets, said she took the “very painful” decision to part with the painting because she had “no liquidity”.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato