The art market: Hollywood sparkle

Christie’s Elizabeth Taylor sale in New York went completely bananas last week. Every one of the 1,778 lots sold, raising a total of $156.8m, way over expectations. It produced the highest ever sale total for jewellery and for fashion, with 26 lots sold for more than $1m. Estimates were pulverised, with some items soaring 50 times over target.

Private Asian buyers pounced on items such as a quartz Buddha or a scholar’s rock – the first was expecting $10,000-$15,000 but made $206,500, and the second fetched $386,500, smashing the estimate of $8,000-$12,000. In the online-only sale, for minor items, the unknown Japanese painter Hiro Yamagata had his finest hour when a Warhol-ish portrait of Taylor, estimated at just $200-$300, made $108,000. And it’s not finished: paintings from her estate, including a Frans Hals portrait and a Van Gogh, come up for sale early next year.

As well as private buyers, there were company purchases. The massive 33.19-carat diamond, which sold for $8.8m, reportedly went to David Pang of the Korean hotel conglomerate E-Land. But any attempt by buyers to exploit their purchase commercially seems doomed as the Elizabeth Taylor Trust retains all intellectual property rights to the works on offer. A special saleroom notice stated: “The use of Elizabeth Taylor’s name, photograph or likeness may not be used relating to this item without the express written permission of the Elizabeth Taylor Trust and/or Interplanet Productions Ltd.” This should prevent what happened to Jackie Onassis Kennedy’s fake pearl necklace, which sold for $221,000 at Sotheby’s in 1996 to the Franklin Mint, which started making and selling reproductions for $200.

Bonhams in London has started a £30m refit of its Bond Street premises by emptying out most of its existing space and rebuilding it virtually from scratch. The auction house is currently lodged in seven separate buildings with smallish rooms connected by corridors and staircases. When the move is finished in December 2013, the firm will boast three huge modern salerooms, complete with sky boxes, a towering atrium entrance, glass lifts, a café in a smartly landscaped Haunch of Venison Yard and light-filled spaces for offices and storage.

Hiro Yamagata’s portrait of Elizabeth Taylor (1991)

By moving upwards through floors and sideways into currently unused light wells, Bonhams will slightly increase its area to about 50,000 sq ft but, more importantly, offer a better environment for saleroom visitors.

“With galleries such as Haunch of Venison and Blain Southern nearby, we are creating a new art hub in the area,” says chairman Robert Brooks. He is funding the revamp from profits and his balance sheet, along with his partner, the Dutch collector Evert Louwman. Certainly the investment is a bold statement of confidence: “We see the big New York salerooms as the benchmark, and we hope to be better,” says Brooks.

The authentication of art is becoming increasingly contentious as values rise, with more and more legal challenges and sometimes even physical threats to experts. The December issue of The Art Newspaper carries an article about how scholars are more reluctant to give their opinions, for fear of landing in court. A case in Paris this week highlights the problem. A Parisian art dealer took two lamps to the Giacometti Foundation to have them authenticated. He was told they were counterfeit and at a meeting the whole thing degenerated into verbal and physical aggression. The dealer, along with two companions, are now facing charges of attempted theft and violence. Véronique Wiesinger, the foundation’s director, said this was typical of “tension in the art market, with enormous financial pressures, and which will only increase”. She will be hiring extra security staff as a result of the incident. Giacometti is, of course, one of the highest priced modern artists, whose “L’homme qui marche I” (1961) sold last year for £65m to billionaire Lily Safra.

The British art trade is furious but resigned to the extension of the artist’s resale right (ARR) to artists’ heirs after January 1. After that date, ARR will be payable on the resale of art by living artists and by those who died up to 70 years before. This hits auction houses and dealers hard, particularly the smaller ones, who will have extra administration to face: from next year, the levy will hit 62 per cent of the UK’s fine art trade by value, up from 14 per cent until now.

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

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