Camille Pissarro’s ‘Le Boulevard Montmartre’
Pissarro’s ‘Le Boulevard Montmartre’ (1897), sold for £19.7m

“The market for Impressionist and modern art is alive and kicking,” declared Sotheby’s specialist Helena Newman at the end of an epic three-hour auction on Wednesday, which racked up £163.5m and was marked by almost frenzied bidding in the packed saleroom. Particularly coveted were 37 works from the private collection of Swiss dealer Jan Krugier, whose widow Marie-Anne was in the room to see prices soar to double, triple and even 10 times estimate. The whole group made £53.3m, almost double expectations.

A painting by Camille Pissarro, “Le Boulevard Montmartre” (1897), restituted in 2000 to the family of Holocaust victim Max Silberberg, shattered its pre-sale estimate of £7m-£10m by making £19.7m (estimates don’t include fees; results do). It was underbid by the artist’s great-grandson, Lionel Pissarro – while his business partner Thomas Seydoux filmed him on his phone – but went to an unidentified buyer.

The sale was watched with growing satisfaction by Sotheby’s chief executive Bill Ruprecht, who is under pressure from activist shareholder Dan Loeb, and the total was the highest the firm has ever achieved in London.

It did not, however, quite match Christie’s sale the previous night, which set an all-time record for any London auction. This totalled almost £177m and produced the biggest price of the week, £34.8m, given for the colourful cubist still life by Juan Gris, “Nature Morte à la Nappe à Carreaux” (1915). It was one of a number of works from a Swiss source identified by dealers as the Giedion-Welcker collection.

However, the shock at Christie’s sale was the last-minute announcement that 25 works by Miró consigned by the Portuguese government had been withdrawn. Another 60 were due to go under the hammer in the day sale. The whole group came from the failed Banco Português de Negócios, which was rescued by the Portuguese authorities in 2008. With ongoing legal challenges to the dispersal, Christie’s said it was “not able to safely offer the works for sale”.

The India Art Fair, held in New Delhi last week, was an opportunity to assess the state of the art market in the subcontinent. Galleries readily admit that 2013 was tough for them, and the overhang of the 2008 debacle, when the “India art boom” collapsed, was still apparent.

“Prices for contemporary art crashed by up to 70 per cent,” said Kishore Singh of the Delhi Art Gallery, which took a huge stand – 400 sq metres – at the fair. “As for the modern artists, their prices dropped by about 20 per cent but are gradually coming back. Still, collectors are bargaining very hard.” The gallery displayed modern Indian art, which was accompanied by a doorstopper book documenting the works. “Art education is non-existent here so we are doing it ourselves,” said Singh.

Most of the other exhibitors displayed contemporary art and local tastes predominated, with often kitschy and colourful creations. A number of previous international exhibitors – Hauser & Wirth, Lisson and White Cube – had not returned, and some good Indian galleries, such as Project 88, did not appear either.

According to the organisers, sales were buoyant, although on the ground reports were more nuanced. For some exhibitors, it was “their best year ever”. London’s Grosvenor Gallery scored well with 60 sales, including many by local artist Olivia Fraser, at prices between £500 (prints) and £8,000. This neatly avoided a big headache for international galleries, namely the 15 per cent duty on imported art – and the hassle the exhibitors face when reclaiming the levy on unsold works. Other galleries were as happy, although sales were not at a high price level. Leading local collector Lekha Poddar bought a work by Hajra Waheed at Experimenter of Kolkata; the other big collector Kiran Nadar, who also has founded a private museum, made a flurry of acquisitions.

Others were disappointed: Lelong of Paris, despite its solo show of Nalini Malani, also featured at the Nadar museum, said business was average. The quality of many of the offerings did not please everyone but Girish Shahane, artistic director for next year’s edition, was sanguine. “The art fair can’t run ahead of its market,” he said. “The buyers here are at a particular stage, we will gradually draw in our audience.” Certainly, with reported attendance of almost 100,000, the fair attracted an enthusiastic number of visitors.

An extraordinary lawsuit has been filed in New York by the former corporate raider Asher Edelman, whose company ArtAssure provides art financing, guarantees and advisory services for both buying and selling art.

ArtAssure is demanding $204m after a soured deal to buy 183 works from the Hiroshima Art Museum in Japan. According to the complaint, a Swiss-based company, Artmentum, offered ArtAssure the works for €315m in a transaction that was “sensitive and confidential” because two Japanese politicians would be dismissed if it became public. Artmentum told Edelman that it already had buyers for six works, worth a total of €230m – a Van Gogh, two Picassos, a Matisse, a Renoir and a Monet, according to the lawsuit. One of the Picassos, “Deux Femmes au Bar” (1902), was valued at €70m.

According to the complaint, the whole deal was a scam. The collection belongs to a foundation and was never for sale; a Japanese “bankruptcy committee”, which was making the decision to sell, never existed; and the third parties who would buy the six works were not ready and able to purchase the paintings, it is alleged.

ArtAssure is claiming the $204m because of lost profits, interest and costs, saying it “expended considerable resources …to research the transaction …to obtain potential financing …and to research the collection.” However, London art law specialist Daniel McClean questions the size of the claim. “Proving the large loss of profit will not be straightforward,” he says. “Establishing this is difficult; in this instance, Edelman would need to demonstrate that there were specific agreements in place with clients to purchase the art works and testimony from these clients would probably be required.”

Attempts to reach Artmentum and the Hiroshima Museum for comment on the recently filed claim were unsuccessful.

Rodman Primack is the new director of Design Miami, and from March 1 will be heading up both its events, in Miami and in Basel. Primack has had a rich and varied career in the art world, having worked for Christie’s, Phillips de Pury (as it then was), Gagosian and the online site Paddle8, as well as founding his own design company. So being the director of a fair is virtually the only thing in the art market he hasn’t already done.

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

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