Art and the big bucks

It is the multi-millionaires and billionaires who make the hearts of artists and dealers beat faster.

in the car (photo credit: )
in the car
(photo credit: )
For the last millenium, and especially since the beginning of the Renaissance, art has followed money. Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris and New York, in turn became the spur. In today's world of continually devaluing cash money, millionaires are now a dime a dozen, and it is the multi-millionaires and billionaires who make the hearts of artists and dealers beat faster. The dealers, some of them periodically very rich themselves, usually buy with a specific client in mind. There is now somewhere between 500 and 1,000 private collectors ready to part with biggest of big bucks. They have replaced the corporate buyers who pushed up the market two decades ago, only to find themselves caught short when circumstances forced them to sell. Both dealers and collectors (and the auction houses) are delighted when major works come to auction - either because a collection has to be divided among heirs, or, more recently, because institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum and the New York Public Library decided to unload fine canvases of historical value because they need money to buy more "with it," contemporary works. Dismayed art lovers who do not have the money to take masterpieces into their homes are accusing directors and curators of following ephemeral fashion and parting with public patrimony. They don't have a say, of course. The New York Public Library is selling off several Gilbert Stuart oils of George Washington (Stuart was something of a cottage industry). It says that the library is not really "into pictures," and is looking for valuable books. The Los Angeles Museum, on the other hand, seems to be continually trying to keep up with developments in New York, some of them merely crass. This month it unloaded a Modigliani portrait and several other major works. Over four decades ago, I watched Willem Sandberg, the first adviser to the nascent Israel Museum, ruthlessly sort out the collection of the old Bezalel Museum; only the gems made the transfer to the Bezalel Wing of the Israel Museum. Needless to say, the rejected works were not a source of funds. This month's sales of Imps and Mods at Sotheby's and Christie's saw a bumper crop of estate sales of good impressionist and modern art. Prices were higher than ever and the buyers parted with over $300 million at the main evening sales. Not everything sold. Over-high estimates caused works by Cezanne and Monet to fail. But some works that had failed on several previous occasions, like Berthe Morisot's delightful Cache-Cache, found a buyer who loved it enough to part with over $5m. Most collectors buy for love and most retain their beloved possessions until they die. Sellers hard up for ready cash always do badly. Some ostensibly successful sellers, who saw what seemed like a profit dropped in their lap, soon discovered that they were lucky to break even, after devaluation, insurance and the auction house commission were factored in. These factors are anxiously scanned by the top dealers bidding at these sales; a single misstep can cost them dear. And then there are the occasional killings that the art market loves. As we reported earlier, Pablo Picasso's Yellow Nude, a study for the milestone Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, sold for $13,736,000. As we predicted, this vibrant gouache on paper far eclipsed its rosiest estimate of $4m. It was bought by Olivier Berggruen, son of the fabled dealer-collector Heinz Berggruen (when a friend introduced me to Heinz in his Paris gallery some three decades ago, he later told me that he was sure his name had been Greenberg). At Christie's, the lovely but fairly ordinary laundrymaid by Toulouse-Lautrec, not one of his vibrant later works, also confounded predictions when it soared to $22m. Last week's contemporary sales in New York also staggered the pundits. At Christie's, a 1954 Mark Rothko, Homage to Matisse, also topped $22m., setting an auction record for the painter. A Roy Lichtenstein of two comic book figures in a car set a record at $16.25m. And then at Sotheby's, David Smith's sculpture Cubi XXVIII set a new world record for a contemporary work of art at auction when it sold for $23.8m., the highest price achieved at auction this season. In total, the sale brought $114.5m., the highest total for an evening sale of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's, with 97.7 percent sold by value and 88.9% sold by lot. New auction records were established for six artists, and 27 lots sold for more than $1m. each. "Contemporary," by the way, is no longer the lingo for 20th century artists no longer alive. They now come under the heading "post-war."