Spring brings palpable cheer to the market



Just a few weeks before the prestigious “impressionism & modern art” sales season gets underway, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have reason to be reassured, with the latest trends confirming that the upturn begun in the final quarter of 2003 continues apace.

Following several worrying years that saw regular declines in both the volume and value of transactions, the market finally seems to be picking up. For the first time in three years, the number of catalogued sales is rising and the no-sales rate is continuing to fall (33.1% in spring 2003 to 31.2% this year). Supply and demand are rising in tandem, while improved market liquidity testifies to a revival in confidence.
This momentum is most visible in Anglo-American markets, with New York and London having recorded rises in catalogued sales of 13% and 25% respectively. Most European markets are showing similar trends. The only exception is France, where the market still looks sluggish and the number of catalogued sales was down 17.8% on the first quarter of 2002. Nonetheless, the French market has every chance of following the UK and US markets and enjoying a brighter summer. Sotheby’s has already set the tone in Paris, announcing the forthcoming dispersal of several very fine collections (Franco Cesari, Pierre Lescure, Marianne and Pierre Nahon). As things stand, the number of sales announced for the second quarter in France is almost 20% higher than a year earlier.

Top 10 auction records 1st Quarter 2004ArtistWorkSaleDEGAS Edgar (1834-1917)GBP 4 500 000 : Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (1879-1881)03/02/2004 (Sotheby’s, London)AVERCAMP Hendrick (1585-1634)USD 7 750 000 : Winter Scene with many Figures skating on a frozen River 22/01/2004 (Sotheby’s, New-York)CÉZANNE Paul (1839-1906)GBP 4 000 000 : Grand bouquet de fleurs (c.1892-1895)02/02/2004 (Christie’s, London)BACON Francis (1909-1992)GBP 2 500 000 : Study for a Pope VI (1961)05/02/2004 (Sotheby’s, London)PICASSO Pablo (1881-1973)GBP 2 500 000 : Buste de femme, Dora Maar (1942)02/02/2004 (Christie’s, London)MONET Claude (1840-1926)GBP 2 450 000 : Vétheuil, après-midi d’automne (1901)03/02/2004 (Sotheby’s, London)PICASSO Pablo (1881-1973)GBP 2 200 000 : Mousquetaire et nu couché (1967)03/02/2004 (Sotheby’s, London)PICASSO Pablo (1881-1973)GBP 2 200 000 : Femme assise au chapeau de paille (1938)03/02/2004 (Sotheby’s, London)FEININGER Lyonel Charles (1871-1956)GBP 2 200 000 : Zeitungsleser, Newspaper Readers II (1916)02/02/2004 (Christie’s, London)MELENDEZ Luis (1716-1780)USD 3 600 000 : Arbutus Berries on a Plate, Apples, a wood Barrel and Bread Rolls23/01/2004 (Christie’s, New-York)

The rise in quantity is closely matched by that in quality. On the results side, price ranges of lots going under the hammer have risen noticeably, with 46 works having already sold for over USD 1 million between 1st January and 31st March 2004, compared with only 37 in the first quarter of 2003. The highest bids have included GBP 4.5 million (USD 8.2 million) for a version of Edgar DEGAS’s Petite danseuse de quatorze ans at Sotheby’s on 3rd February 2004 (although admittedly the version on 7th May 2003 fetched USD 9.2 million). During a sale of old masters organised by the same auction house in New York on 22nd January 2004, Hendrick AVERCAMP’s Winter Scene with many Figures skating on a frozen River, a large-format landscape close to a metre wide and estimated at USD 4-6 million, went for USD 7.75 million, thereby setting a new record for the artist.
All in all, 1,287 artists have already beaten their records in the first three months of the year. The top-selling old masters include the Spanish artist Luis MELENDEZ (USD 3.6 million for Arbutus Berries on a Plate, Apples, a wood Barrel and Bread Rolls), the Dutch painter Pieter Jansz. SAENREDAM (USD 1.65 million for Haarlem, the Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, seen from the South West) and Italy’s Lorenzo MONACO (CHF 2.1 million). In the modern art arena, February’s London sales set plenty of records, notably for Lyonel FEININGER (GBP 2.2 million for Zeitungsleser, Newspaper Readers II) and BALTHUS (GBP 1.8 million for Nu aux bras levés, or slightly over USD 400,000 more than the previous price attained by the same painting in 2000). The finest performance among contemporary artists came from CAI Guoqiang, with his monumental Rebuilding the Berlin Wall: Project for Extraterrestrials No.7 finding a buyer at GBP 125,000 on 4th February at Christie’s in London.

Results like these bode very well for the forthcoming prestigious New York sales in May.