February 4, 2011 7:53 pm

The Art Market: the big-hitters in London

Pre-sale estimates indicate a recovery in the market
 
Dali portrait

Salvador Dalí’s portrait of Paul Eluard, in Sotheby’s ‘Looking Closely’ sale

Two weeks of major sales in London begin on Tuesday at Sotheby’s with an evening sale of impressionist and modern art and continue into next week with contemporary works. The market recovery is reflected in pre-sale estimates: if all goes well, more than £400m will be lavished on art in the coming days, with up to £287m expected this week alone. But there might be fewer fireworks than last year’s February session, when Sotheby’s scored £65m for Giacometti’s “L’homme qui marche I” (1961).

Sotheby’s 42-lot evening session is estimated at £55m-£79m (presale estimates do not include commission but results do) and includes the most expensive lot of the week, Picasso’s “La Lecture”. This thickly impastoed portrait of Marie-Thérèse dates from 1932: the artist shows his lover dreamily asleep with an open book on her lap. Such works are rare and highly sought after, and while Sotheby’s example is quite small and on board (a slight disadvantage), it is a very attractive image and should fully make, or even surpass, its high estimate of £18m. The work has been sent for sale by an American collector and, rather bizarrely, is both guaranteed and bears the “irrevocable bid” symbol, meaning that it is already presold to someone, who would share in the upside if it does better than the agreed price.

Sotheby’s other evening sale is “Looking Closely”, boasting a tip-top group of works (see Sale of the Week), estimated at £39.3m-£54.9m, which will be sold on Thursday.

On Wednesday Christie’s has separately catalogued impressionist and modern paintings and surrealist works, making for a potentially long evening. The 46-lot first half is estimated at up to £80.9m, while the 32-lot surrealist component could add another £28.1m. Here the most expensive lot is a Gauguin, “Nature Morte à l’Espérence” (1901), painted in Tahiti but an awkward composition of sunflowers with a copy of a Puvis de Chavannes painting in one corner. It carries a £7m-£10m estimate that might be a big ask.

Also in the sale is Braque’s lumpy “Nature Morte à la Guitare” (1938; est £3.5m-£5.5m) being deaccessioned by the Art Institute of Chicago along with two Picassos and a Matisse. Christie’s has covered itself for this lot by getting a third party to guarantee the price. But while the Braque and the Gauguin might prove a little problematic, Christie’s sale holds a number of other very attractive works, including Marc’s charming watercolour of a deer “Reh”, (1912, est £900,000-£1.4m), Picasso’s “Jeune Fille Accoudée” (1903-04, est £800.000-£1.2m) and Derain’s fauvist “Bateaux à Collioure” (1905; est £4m-£6m). Overall, dealers were optimistic in the run up to this week’s auctions. “Art is showing itself to be a good thing to buy at the moment; banks are not perceived as a good place to park your money,” said London dealer James Roundell.

To coincide with the London sales, Michel Strauss, Sotheby’s long-time head of impressionist and modern art, is launching his book of memoirs, Pictures, Passions and Eye (Halban) this week. Strauss, who comes from a family of collectors, was with Sotheby’s for 40 years and in on all the major deals in his time. He knew everyone from Peter Wilson to Dede Brooks: he lived through significant events – from the British Rail Pension Fund sale to the collusion scandal in the late 1990s. Seek no great revelations here: Strauss is a cautious diarist and isn’t giving anything away, but the book is full of detail and anecdote about his years with the firm.

With an eye on the collectors packing London for this week’s sales, Christie’s is showing a selection of pieces from the vast Château de Gourdon sale of art deco and modernist furniture and objects it is organising in Paris next month.

The collection was until recently on show in a medieval château on the French Riviera and was put together by Laurent Negro, heir to an employment agency fortune in France. For various reasons – he cites disagreements with the local municipality – he has decided to sell the whole group. The 700 lots are being dispersed over three days, March 29-31, in Paris.

The collection is rich in art deco works, particularly by Dunand, Eileen Gray and Ruhlmann – with, for example, a super-smart macassar ebony commode with inlaid ivory and silvered bronze pulls (€500,000-€700,000). But the “heart” of the holdings is the array of modernist works by members of the Union des Artistes Modernes. A Le Corbusier chaise longue is estimated at €50,000-€70,000. There is even a cubist-inspired carpet by Francis Bacon, dating from his early days as a designer, estimated at €20,000-€30,000.

The whole sale is estimated at €35m-€50m. Is there a danger of swamping the market? I asked Christie’s specialist Jonathan Rendell but he was upbeat, citing a “real hunger for this sort of material”. Nevertheless, the auction house is keeping some material back, for another sale, depending on how the first ones go.

A new association of advisers to the art market has been formed, spearheaded by the art law specialist Pierre Valentin. Paiam (Professional Advisors to the International Art Market) groups lawyers, tax advisers, insurers and accountants, giving them the opportunity to network and share information. On the board, apart from Valentin, is James Kelly (Damien Hirst’s business adviser) and Anders Petterson, founder of the art data firm ArtTactic. “Each founder member has been asked to invite five others. If the applicant has a track record of advising the international art market over a period of years, then he/she will be most welcome,” says Valentin, explaining that Paiam is “not for art experts, valuers and dealers – it is not competing with SLAD (The Society of London Art Dealers) or BADA (British Antique Dealers Association).”

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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