Paris resists crisis



Although the global art is in the midst of a crisis, Paris appears to be showing remarkable resistance: the number of auction sales and the volume of lots proposed has remained stable compared with 2008. Moreover, for the first quarter of 2009, the French capital posted a better overall revenue figure than either London or New York on the back of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent sale at the Grand Palais in February.

In fact, at the end of a first quarter in which the crisis was felt particularly hard in New York, art prices in France posted a contraction of only 5% and they have remained at that level since then. There are two main reasons for this resistance: firstly Paris (and France in general) is essentially a less high-end market and therefore less speculative by nature and secondly, the Paris branch of Christie’s has had a number of particularly fruitful sales. One figure which particularly bears out this Parisian exception is a bought-in rate that has diminished from close to 50% in the autumn of 2008 to below 40%. On 28 May 2009, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale in Paris found buyers for 95.2% of the lots on offer.
However, the best Parisian results over recent months have been generated by Sotheby’s rival Christie’s which had substantial success with its sales of private collections (part or whole) in February and then in May. The sale of the Bergé-YSL collection on 23 February 2009 was a veritable windfall. Remember that its revenue total of €373.5m (of which €255m for works of art) was equivalent to 53.2% of France’s total auction revenue in 2008!
An oasis in an otherwise barren landscape for global art sales, that auction produced 22 sales above the $1m line (vs. 19 in 2008 for the whole of France) including four of the five best sales in France over the last 20 years! (Henri MATISSE, Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose: €32m, Constantin BRANCUSI, Madame L.R.: €26m, Piet MONDRIAAN, Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir: €19.2m, and Composition avec grille 2: €12.8m).

At the end of May, Paris had another strong moment although relatively modest by comparison with the February results. Sotheby’s posted only two sales above the $1m line (Nicolas DE STAËL, Bouteilles, €1.1m on 27 May and Georges Pierre SEURAT’s drawing Femme avec deux fillettes, €1.3m on 28 May) while the best result from Christie’s Impressionist & Modern sale was €460,000 (for Auguste RODIN’s Faunesse debout). The best result from the Contemporary Art sales was €620,000 for Andy WARHOL’s portrait of Yves Saint-Laurent on 27 May. Nevertheless, Christie’s pulled off a highly successful event by offering approximately 50 works by François-Xavier and his partner Claude Lalanne that generated €2.3m, lifting the final total for the sale to €6.7m.
The French auctioneers have also produced some remarkably good results, including the large sum generated from the sale of Rodin’s Penseur that was presented at Drouot by the houses Mathias, Baron Ribeyre & Associates and Farrando-Lemoine. This emblematic sculpture adorns the centre of the tympanum of Rodin’s Portes de l’Enfer. Estimated at €400,000, the piece sold for no less than €2.56m on 17 June, beating the previous record of $2.7m (€1.86m) for the same subject (Sotheby’s NY, 7 November 2007). Immediately after this historic bid, a Petite Eve by the same artist completely dwarfed its price estimate of €300,000 when it fetched €2m.

As the summer approaches, the French art market is entering a calmer phase. Among the upcoming summer auctions, Christie’s has yet another sale scheduled involving a private collection. The sale entitled L’oeil d’un sculpteur: Collection Mary Callery will take place on 2 July and will offer 63 modern works with signatures including Henri Laurens, Hans Arp, Henri Michaux and Fernand Léger. The star lots will include a small Concetto Spaziale, Attese , Attese by Lucio FONTANA which is expected to fetch between 40 and 60 thousand euros and two paintings by ZAO Wou-Ki, dated 1959, including one large format that is estimated at between 400 and 600 thousand euros. In the same price range, the auctioneer will be offering a painting in acrylic by Frank Stella measuring 4-metres across. For budgets of one to three thousand euros, there will be two etchings by Pierre Soulages and various paintings by Jesse Reicheck (oil on canvas 1960, €1,500 – €2 000) and James Brown (Un être, €2,000 – €3,000).