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Market review.

It seems as though a rearguard action is taking place in the salerooms these days as the newly monied buyers from the emerging economies continue to make their preference felt for more representational work. The broad-based competition for what the market not so long ago deemed old-fashioned is beginning to counter the huge prices paid for more conceptual modern and contemporary art. Certainly the hugely successful London sales in February found a raft of strong prices not only for Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and modern art, but also for figurative post-war painting. It helped, of course, that there was some outstanding material on offer.

Exceptional older works are increasingly becoming market rarities, and they tend to come under the gavel only through estate sales or restitutions. Camille Pissarro's masterly Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinee de printemps (1897; Fig. 1) belonged to the German collector Max Silberberg until its forced sale in 1935. Restituted to his widow in 2000, when it was placed on loan to the Israel Museum, it was consigned to Sotheby's by her heirs. This substantial canvas belongs to a series of views of one of Haussmann's grand new boulevards executed from the balcony of Pissarro's hotel room, and recording the bustling thoroughfare at different times of day and in different seasons and weather conditions. As such it is a quintessential Impressionist painting of fin de siecle Paris. It is also remarkable for its sure brushwork, an adept shorthand notation by which the artist captured the throng of pedestrians and carriages. As the artist wrote to his son: 'I'm delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life ... they're so totally modern!' Expected to fetch 7m [pounds sterling]-10m [pounds sterling], it realised a record 19.7m [pounds sterling]. Van Gogh's L'homme est en mer of 1889, illustrated in the February Apollo, similarly doubled expectations to sell for 16.9m [pounds sterling].

The 5 February sale also included a group of 37 works on paper (and one Giacometti bronze--see Collector's Focus, pp. 82-83) from the private collection of the dealer and collector, Jan Krugier. Rather better received than the earlier Krugier offering last November, this tranche was 100 per cent sold and doubled its admittedly cautious pre-sale expectations to total over 53m [pounds sterling]. Records tumbled here too, with new highs found for works on paper by Picasso, Giacometti and Bonnard, and numerous delectable sheets, such as one of Seurat's virtuoso Conte crayon drawings of a porter at Les Halles which changed hands for 1.1m [pounds sterling]. The highest price, however, was the 10.4m [pounds sterling] (estimate 1.8m [pounds sterling] 2.5m [pounds sterling]) paid for Picasso's elaborate gouache, pen, ink and pencil Composition (Composition au Minotaure) of 1936, one of several works that Krugier acquired directly from the artist's granddaughter, Marina.


What was not anticipated, however, was the 2.4m [pounds sterling] that the Getty paid for Mendiant hindou, an exquisite early drawing of around 1878 by Seurat that was offered in the subsequent day sale. While still at school, Seurat enrolled in a course run by the sculptor Justin Lequien, who encouraged his pupils to make close studies of the plaster casts of antique sculpture. During this time, Seurat produced this poignant and sensitive delineation of an aged beggar's wasting muscles and sagging skin. It had been expected to fetch 80,000 [pounds sterling]-120,000 [pounds sterling].

The real surprise of the evening sale, however, was the 4.3m [pounds sterling] paid for another haunting work, Le passage, by the American Surrealist Kay Sage. The wife of Yves Tanguy, in this self-portrait of 1956 Sage paints her desolation after Tanguy's sudden death from a stroke the previous year. It had been acquired in 1958 by another great 20th-century collector, Stanley J. Seeger. The sale totalled 163.5m [pounds sterling], the highest for any auction held at Sotheby's London. Moreover, there were registered bidders from an unprecedented 44 countries.

On the previous evening, Christie's London had achieved even more--176.9m [pounds sterling]--a record for any sale in the capital. Its top lot, Gris' impressive Nature morte avec nappe a carreaux of 1915, also doubled expectations to sell for a record 34.8m [pounds sterling]. From the same rather cerebral Swiss collection came another highlight: Mondrian's Composition No II with Blue and Yellow of 1930, which made its market debut and changed hands for 20.2m [pounds sterling]. Not sold, however, was the group of 85 works by Miro consigned by the Portuguese government, which was withdrawn hours before the sale was due to take place: Christie's said the controversial auction has been 'cancelled as a result of a dispute before the Portuguese court'.

As it turned out, it was Italian rather than Spanish art that stole the limelight at Christie's. This began in the Art of the Surreal sale when a record price was paid for Carlo Carra's Solitudine (from the same Swiss collection)--3.1m [pounds sterling]--and continued into the firm's Post-War and Contemporary sale. The select, 109-lot private collection of predominantly 1960s Arte Povera, an area rather overlooked by the market, proved a success with only 23 lots unsold and a resounding 38.4m [pounds sterling] total. It appears that increasing numbers of international buyers are turning their attention to 20th-century Italian work. A remarkable 13 artist auction records were set.

Fierce bidding broke out for several pieces, not least two embroideries and a pair of panels painted in industrial varnish on metal by Alighiero Boetti; all three were acquired by the Italian film producer Pietro Valsecchi. Another big price was the record 1.99m [pounds sterling] paid for Michelangelo Pistoletto's Lei e Lui--Maria e Michelangelo, a self-portrait of the young artist and his wife painted on tissue paper and laid on polished steel (Fig. 3). Valsecchi was also the underbidder who pushed the price of Alberto Burri's Combustione plastica of 1960-61 to a record 4.67m [pounds sterling]. Burri is the giant of post-war Italian art, original, radical and hugely influential in his adoption of 'poor' and subsequently ravaged brute materials such as coarse sacking and plastic. Long before Yves Klein, he harnessed fire as a transformative process to scorch or melt. Blistering welts and gaping holes mark this work of around 1960.

At Christie's London's Post-War and Contemporary sale on 13 February, one of Domenico Gnoli's late 'hair' pieces soared beyond expectations. Black Hair of 1969 offers a magnified cascade of hyperrealist black wavy hair, executed in acrylic and sand on canvas (Fig. 2). It changed hands for a whopping 7m [pounds sterling]--a saleroom record for the artist--against an estimate of 1.2m [pounds sterling]-1.8m [pounds sterling]. The underbidder was rumoured to be Chinese. The sale also found a new auction record for Jenny Saville whose Plan, a savage self-portrait of her naked body marked up by the plastic surgeon's pen, changed hands for just over 2m [pounds sterling]. The huge price of the night, however, was the colossal 42.2m [pounds sterling] paid for Bacon's Portrait of George Dyer Talking from 1966, a work included in the 1971 retrospective in Paris where Dyer, Bacon's lover, killed himself just prior to the opening. A record for a single canvas by the artist, it boosted the sale's 124m [pounds sterling] total, which was an impressive 95 per cent sold by value. Again, there was new and established bidding from Europe, the US and Asia.
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Title Annotation:ART MARKET
Author:Moore, Susan
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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