The Art Market: Bubble gazing

The spring series of Impressionist and Modern sales starts this week with an impressive line-up from the main auction houses.

First up is Sotheby’s on Tuesday May 3 with a 59-lot, evening sale estimated at $158.9m-$229.7m, and boasting a swathe of Picassos – 10, no less – as well as a unique Gauguin sculpture (“Jeune Tahitienne” about 1893, $10m-$15m), made of painted tamanu wood, pasted paper, with necklaces of red coral and shell. There is also a vibrantly colourful Von Jawlensky (“Woman with a Green Fan”, 1912, $8m-$12m) and a charming Bonnard (“Le Corsage Rayé”, about 1922, $3m-$5m).

The top lot in the sale is Picasso’s pensive portrait of two women, “Femmes Lisant”, one of the famed Marie-Thérèse series, this one painted in 1937 and showing her and a companion leaning over a book ($25m-$35m). Visitors to New York will also want to swing into Gagosian’s major show, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou, on 21st Street, the largest exhibition yet of this sensual – and highly bankable – series of works featuring the artist’s sexually compliant young mistress.

Christie’s on the following evening offers 55 lots with a target of up to $232.3m and a quintessentially Impressionist highlight, Monet’s 1891 “Les Peupliers”, with fluffy clouds drifting behind a line of spindly poplars. Estimated at $20m-$30m, the work last sold in 2000 when it fetched just $7m. Another highlight is a vibrant Fauve depiction from 1905, “Paysage de Banlieue” (estimated at $18m-$25m) by Vlaminck which is reportedly being sold by hedge-fund titan Steve Cohen.

“The problem since the financial crisis has been that consignors were wary of selling, but now we are seeing more people prepared to test the waters. And despite the current uncertainty in the Middle East and the Japanese tragedy, we have seen no fall-off in demand for art,” says Conor Jordan, Christie’s head of department.

The Christie’s-owned dealer Haunch of Venison is making two moves this year. The London gallery, which has spent more than two years in the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building, will go back into its refurbished space in Haunch of Venison Yard in early September. It kicks off with a show by the Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, and then in October will hold a solo show of the Iraqi-born artist Ahmed Alsoudani, many of whose works echo images of war and atrocity.

Meanwhile, Haunch’s American gallery is leaving its Rockefeller Center space and moving to Chelsea at 550 West 21st Street where it will open at the end of September with a show of its artists including Alsoudani, Ghenie, Jitish Kallat, Kevin Francis Gray, Ged Quinn and Joana Vasconcelos.

The moves should usher in a new era for Haunch, which was destabilised last year by the departure of its founders, Harry Blain and Graham Southern. Some of the gallery’s artists also left, but Haunch recruited the New York dealer Robert Goff who brought with him four artists including Alsoudani and Gray.

Haunch is moving into the gallery of the Parisian Yvon Lambert, who is leaving his New York space. Olivier Bélot, who has had a leading role in the firm for a number of years, told me that Lambert is retiring, after 45 years as an art dealer. “It is a painful decision to leave New York, but Yvon has asked me to take over the Paris gallery, and I can’t do that and look after New York as well,” he said, “but we will continue with the same programme and artists.”

Could Sotheby’s stock price be an “alarm bell” for a immering financial crisis? This is the theory of author and investor Vikram Mansharamani, who also lectures at Yale on “Financial booms and busts”. In his new book Boombustology (Wiley), Mansharamani says that record prices in the art market are “scarily accurate bubble predictors”. He points to China’s meteoric rise in the auction world as a sign of froth as a newly rich society “spends its easy money with exponential flamboyance”.

We have been here before, he warns. Peaks in Sotheby’s generally stable stock price correlate uncannily with three bubbles over the last 20 years, while the fourth – China – is happening now (at press time, the stock stood at $50.3, just below its peak of $55.7 in April).

The late 1980s Japan crash, the internet bubble a decade later and then what he calls the “great recession” of 2008-2009 – all saw Sotheby’s stock take a plunge – and he tracks this with a chart. Mansharamani points to current record prices, from $18m lavished on a vase estimated at $800 to the $106.5m Picasso that supposedly went to a Chinese buyer as symptomatic of “overinvestment, overconfidence and easy money”. And he cites another indicator of bubbles – skyscrapers. Classically these were erected just before financial busts – in 2015, says Mansharamani, Chinese skyscrapers will occupy ranks two, three, five, nine and 10 of the tallest new buildings.

With museums under increasing financial pressure, a new way of financing acquisitions is “crowd funding” via the internet. Last year the Louvre used a web campaign to raise the final €1m needed to buy a €4m Cranach the Elder painting: 5,000 donors responded, some sending as little as €1, with an average of €150. Now the state-owned Dutch Rijksmuseum Twenthe is raising funds for the final 10 per cent of the £330,000 purchase price of Gainsborough’s “Wooded Landscape”, bought from London’s Richard Green gallery.

But, unlike the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum Twenthe is counting on its 1,000 “friends” to come up with the sum. As they are mainly, ahem, “mature” people, only 150 actually have e-mail, so the appeal was initially made at a meeting and followed up with a letter. However, the museum is getting with the times and putting its appeal on its website as well.

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

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