A wave of optimism at the London sales



Christie’s and Sotheby’s have won their gamble. The Impressionist & Modern Art sales on 2 and 3 February in London generated one global all-segment record and 29 results above £1m out of 87 lots offered. Christie’s managed to sell 87.5% of its lots for £61m (est. £48m-69m) plus the £8.5m from its special session devoted to surrealist art. Sotheby’s, the big winner of the week, sold 81% of its lots for a total result £106.1m (est. £68m-101m) including £58m for Alberto GIACOMETTI’s L’Homme qui marche I.

After a price contraction of -30% in 2008 followed by -10% in the first quarter of 2009, the Artprice Global Index stabilised at the end of 2009 to around 2005 price levels. Since then, a form of sober confidence has clearly returned to the market, clearly targeting art that might be considered a safe investment. This is not ‘euphoria’ but rather a trend reversal after the purge of 2009. The top-bracket collectors and investors have adjusted their sights onto Old Masters, Impressionist and Modern art at the expense of the more volatile and risky Contemporary art segment. Demand for the masterpieces of art history has clearly recovered. The £167.14m from the Christie’s and Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern evenings (not including the Surrealist session) clearly reflects an improved climate and is twice the total generated a year earlier (£83.75m on 3 and 4 February 2009).

The apex of the sales was the ferocious battle, in million-pound steps, to acquire Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche I on 3 February. The result (£58m) will go down in history as the new global all-artist all-segment auction record, outstripping the $93m fetched by Pablo PICASSO’s Garçon à la Pipe in 2004, and it generated a superb profit for the seller, Commerzbank. Sotheby’s also obtained good prices for its other lots: Gustav KLIMT‘s Church in cassone – Landscape with cypresses fetched £24m, a record for a landscape by the artist; Paul CÉZANNE’s Pichet et fruits sur une table, which went unsold in 2001, fetched £10.5m this time; Egon SCHIELE’s drawing Sitzende Frau mit violetten Strümpfen sold for £4.3m in its estimated range, and Pierre-Auguste RENOIR’s painting of Leontine Lisant, fetched £2.2m, adding £1m to its last auction result in 2002.In fact, the final total gave Sotheby’s its best ever London result just behind the record result generated by Christie’s on 18 June 2007 from a sale of Impressionist & Modern Art when the market was near its zenith.

At Christie’s last week, the best results were £7.2m for Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme (Jacqueline) (est. £3-4m); £6.3m for Kees VAN DONGEN’s la Gitane ; £5.7m for Nathalie GONTCHAROVA’s l’Espagnole; £5.4m for another Picasso entitled Homme assis sur une chaise; £3.35m for Henri MATISSE’s Nu aux jambes croisées and £2.7m for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Mademoiselle Grimprel au ruban rouge, exceeding its high estimate. Paul SIGNAC’s masterpiece Le jardin du Vert-Galant also generated an excellent result at £1.6m. In May 2002, it sold for £442,000 at Sotheby’s.
By the end of its Impressionist & Modern sale, Christie’s had dispersed 78% of the lots at above or equal to their low estimates. But there were also some disappointments. Among the unsold pieces: Pierre BONNARD’s Les courses à Longchamp (est. £700,000-1m), Georges Pierre SEURAT’s Casseur de pierres (est. £1.2m-1.8m), Claude MONET’s le village de La Roche-Blond au soleil couchant (est. £1m-1.5m) and Pablo Picasso’s la Diseuse (est. £500,000-700,000).

Nevertheless, the success of the Impressionist & Modern sales in London has sent a strong signal of confidence to the market. The impact was immediately reflected in Artprice’s Art Market Confidence Index (AMCI) which gained 5 points between Tuesday 2 February and the end of the week and is now standing at 31 points. In fact, all the market indicators are now back in positive territory, particularly the purchase intentions which were expressed by 71% of respondents.