The art market: gloom and boom

It was a tale of stark contrasts in New York this week, when the art market swung from the deepest gloom to near elation in just 24 hours.

Christie’s sale of impressionist and modern art on Tuesday was dismal. The total of $140.8m fell well short of pre-sale expectations of $211.9m-$304.3m and 31 of the 82 lots went unsold. Christie’s had the further bad luck of going first, holding the week’s opening sale to the backdrop of a plunging Standard & Poors index and the Greek crisis, with a bloated catalogue including some over-inflated estimates. There were groans as its lead lot, Degas’ “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans”, shackled with a $25m-$35m estimate and not fresh to the market, failed to elicit a single bid. Further casualties included two Picassos and Giacometti’s skinny “Femme de Venise VII” (1956/57), estimated at $10m-$15m. There were some bright spots, though: Max Ernst’s “The Stolen Mirror” (1941) powered over its $4m-$6m estimate to make $16.3m, while a Russian buyer was thought to have bagged Brancusi’s polished bronze sculpture, “Le premier cri” at $14.8m, over its $8m-$10m estimate.

The gloom following this session was quickly dissipated the following evening at Sotheby’s, which briskly racked up an encouraging $199.8m, squarely within pre-sale expectations of $167.6m-$229.9m. It sold 57 of the 70 lots, achieving a punchy $40.4m for a restituted Klimt, “Litzlberg am Attersee” (1915), as well as setting a new record for Caillebotte, when his limpid “Le Pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine” (1883) made just over $18m (est. $9m-$12m). Relief at the good results was palpable as observers – braving a demonstration by art handlers outside – attributed the sale’s success to more realistic estimates and fresher material rather than the perkier S&P index, which had risen 1.6 per cent before the sale.

Gustave Caillebotte's 'Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine' (1883), which fetched more than $18m at Sotheby's

Going second enabled Sotheby’s to persuade some sellers to lower their expectations after Christie’s disappointing sale, by talking them round to dropping reserves (the secret price under which a work cannot be sold). One that got cold feet may have been the Texas Burnett Foundation, which had consigned four monumental Matisse sculptures for sale over the next nine months, having failed to find a buyer for the set at a rumoured $200m. The first, estimated at $20m-$30m, was due to be sold on Wednesday, but was abruptly withdrawn after the Christie’s sale. Sotheby’s said that a private buyer had been found for the four, and the trade quickly buzzed with rumours that they had sold for $120m.

Coming up next week in New York is the Peter Norton collection at Christie’s, a $25m ensemble of contemporary art that was built up over two decades by the “anti-virus” mogul. It includes blue-chip works by the likes of Paul McCarthy, Nam June Paik, Barbara Kruger, Christopher Wool, Matthew Barney and Maurizio Cattelan. But there’s a fly in the ointment: Norton is based in California. The state is the only one in the US to have a resale royalties levy, which in theory means that residents must pay the artist 5 per cent when they resell work for over $1,000. This is rarely applied, but now artists including Chuck Close and the estates of Sam Francis and Robert Graham have filed class action suits against Sotheby’s, Christie’s, eBay and nine galleries, claiming they have refused to pay the levy. Court documents claim that “several hundred” other artists could be concerned. Asked if Norton was going to pay the royalty, Christie’s said: “Christie’s views the California Resale Royalties Act as subject to serious legal challenges ... As this issue is directly connected to the subject of the lawsuit, we will address it as part of the litigation process.”

Case closed. This is the outcome of Germany’s largest ever forgery trial, which has just ended with guilty verdicts but lenient sentences for four people. They were accused of counterfeiting paintings by German expressionists and French painters over 30 years and giving them provenances from fictitious “Werner Jägers” and “Wilhelm Knops” collections.

The four defendants confessed and plea-bargained in return for lighter sentences; the gang’s mastermind, Wolfgang Beltracchi, got six years, and other members got lesser sentences. For various reasons – one being that some of the investigation was time-barred – the German authorities only retained 14 forgeries, and so the true number of their counterfeits may never be known.

“This is terrible for the art market,” says Berlin-based lawyer Friederike Gräfin von Brühl: “Unfortunately, criminal law is not there to clean up the market, but to punish the forgers. But it’s most unsatisfactory for the victims.”

One of these is Ingeborg Henze-Ketterer of the Swiss Henze and Ketterer gallery who bought fake Pechsteins from the German saleroom Lempertz. She believes the gang was responsible for at least 100 forgeries of Campendonk, Pechstein, Derain, Léger and other artists, and that they have infiltrated the open market.

“The German authorities made a horrible deal by not investigating further,” she says. “At the beginning we hired a private detective, and it took him just two days to discover that the ‘Jägers’ collection was completely mythical.”

Christie’s was also taken in and sold some of these fakes, notably Derain’s “Bateaux à Collioure”, for £2m in 2007. This sale no longer appears on the company’s website, although it is recorded on Artnet. Christie’s would only say: “We have taken all appropriate steps to resolve this matter,” and “This criminal case is now closed; we have no further comment.”

Henze and Ketterer and the Malta-based company Trasteco, which spent a record €2.4m at Lempertz on another “Campendonk”, “Rotes Bild mit Pferden” (1914), are now suing Lempertz in a civil action, in an attempt to recover their money: Lempertz was not immediately available for comment.

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

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