The Art Market: Closure and weighty impressions

Agnews, one of the world’s oldest art dealers, is to close. The 195-year-old London gallery will cease trading on April 30, after a final outing at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht.

Chairman Julian Agnew is from the sixth generation to work for the family firm, which has long been in decline. In 2008 the chairman sold its historic Bond Street premises, purpose-built by his great-great grandfather in 1877, for a reported £25m, and moved to a smaller space in nearby Albemarle Street.

Negotiations with a prospective buyer ended in failure last year. “I wanted to retire and there was no obvious successor,” says Agnew, whose daughter Gina left last year to start her own gallery. “We are not in a happy place: we are neither big like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the ‘supermarkets’ of the art world, nor small enough. We were undercapitalised for today’s art prices.” The firm is privately owned, with 16 family shareholders, and its most recent available accounts, dating from 2011, reveal a loss of £1.8m, including various writedowns for accountancy reasons.

In its heyday, Agnews handled major Old Master paintings: Reynolds, Gainsborough, Van Dyke and Rembrandt, as well as selling watercolours and British paintings. One of many splendid works it sold is Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, now in London’s National Gallery.

The firm has been running down stock, and the remainder will be disposed of gradually. Agnew says he will continue to work from home advising clients privately, and that he will keep the company name. “I actually want to spend less time with my family, the company, and more with my own family,” he says.

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The heavier the saleroom catalogues, the stronger the market? During the 2009 slump, they were as skinny as grandma’s wrist – but this week’s tomes for the Impressionist and modern art sales in London thudded on to my scales at a hefty 20 pounds in weight. Their contents translate into more than £263m sterling, taking the top estimate – a sum roughly comparable with last year’s February sales, when Christie’s made £179.1m and Sotheby’s raked in £96m (pre-sale estimates don’t include commission; results do).

Both auction houses have put crowd-pleasing images on the covers of their evening sale catalogues: a sensuous Marie-Thérèse, “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” (1932) at Sotheby’s on Tuesday, looking for £25m-£30m and carrying an “irrevocable bid”, which means that it is already sold for an undisclosed price unless someone bids higher.

Modigliani's 'Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau)' (1919), is on sale at Christie's in London this week for an estimated £16m-£22m

Christie’s the following night offers a portrait of Modigliani’s tragic companion, “Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau)” painted in 1919, the year before they both died. It last sold in 2006 when it fetched £16.4m – now it is estimated at £16m-£22m. “It really ticks all the boxes,” says Christie’s specialist Olivier Camu: “The swan neck, the African mask face, the clear signature, the elegant sinuousness of the pose.”

Surrealism has been extremely strong over the past three years, with high prices given particularly for Miró, Magritte, Dalí and Delvaux. This market hit its peak last October, according to online site Art Market Report, with growth of 25 per cent since 2007.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s both have dedicated Surrealism sections in their evening sales: Christie’s has its highest value sale ever in this field, estimated up to £46.9m, as well as the stronger sale in quality. Its star is the fresh-to-the-market Magritte, “Le Plagiat” (1940), which combines prettiness with typical Magrittian motifs such as eggs in a basket and visual tricks (£2m-£3m).

On Tuesday, Sotheby’s is hoping for up to £23m in its sale featuring Miró’s colourful “Le fermier et son épouse” (1936, estimate £5.5m-£7.5m); it last sold in 2007 for $10.4m.

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In March Sotheby’s New York will be selling a collection of modern Indian painting consigned by Amrita Jhaveri, who formerly worked for Christie’s and also happened to be the third wife of Christie’s former chief executive Christopher Davidge.

The subject is potentially toxic and brings back memories of the late 1990s price collusion scandal. Sotheby’s does not mention Davidge in the pre-sale publicity, but he handed over evidence to the authorities, which resulted in Sotheby’s majority shareholder Alfred Taubman going to prison for one year. Both auction houses had to pay hefty fines too. Davidge gained an amnesty – as well as a beautiful wife – and collects Indian art with Jhaveri, who has a gallery in Mumbai.

The 43 works, by the likes of modern Indian painters such as MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza, SH Raza and Vasudeo Gaitonde, are estimated at between $5m and $7m. Many were bought at Sotheby’s landmark sale of the Herwitz collection in 2000, the first to put Indian modern art on the international art map; the rest came from other auctions or through dealers. It will be the first evening sale of Indian art held outside the sub-continent.

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A bitter dispute involving London art dealer Gérard Faggionato, the Mugrabi family of dealer/traders and Edward Spencer-Churchill over Basquiat’s 1983 work “Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown)” has been settled.

The row started after Lord Spencer-Churchill sold the painting through Faggionato for £4m. It went to the Mugrabis, who put it into auction at Christie’s New York in May last year, estimated at $9m-$12m. When he heard this, Spencer-Churchill became “dyspeptic” with “seller’s remorse”, according to a complaint laid before a New York court by the Mugrabis. He disputed title and the painting was withdrawn from the sale.

Spencer-Churchill sued Faggionato, saying he had specified that the work should not be sold to the Mugrabis because of a failed earlier negotiation. They in turn sued Spencer-Churchill, saying that his actions had cost them a guaranteed profit of $2.6m. And they claimed that not only did he know they had bought the work, but had called to congratulate them on their purchase.

In the settlement, everyone is bound by a confidentiality agreement but according to the New York art market newsletter Baerfaxt, the painting has now sold for $15m – a nice mark-up over the original price.

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New York’s Old Master sales started this week with Christie’s dispersal of 62 Dürer prints from a private source that dealers have identified as Swiss collector Samuel Josefowitz. Top lot was Dürer’s well-known image “The Rhinoceros”, a woodcut depicting the animal (which, in fact, the artist had never seen). It dates from 1515, when the first rhinoceros arrived in Europe and was destined as a present to the pope. Sadly the ill-fated beast drowned in transit to Rome, and had to be stuffed before being delivered to the pontiff.

Dürer only had a sketch and description on which to base his woodcut, which dated from 1515. It was nevertheless a sensation and went into eight editions. Very few survive of the first edition, so this image thundered past its $100,000-$150,000 estimate to make $866,500, setting a new record for Dürer. The sale totalled just over $6m, within expectations of $4.6m-$6.9m.

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

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