A Summer of Auction Stars: The Art World Sniffs, Hopefully, a Recovery

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The summer art season was surprisingly hopeful-and not just because several artists’ records were set at auctions in London and Paris.

Auction-house experts credit “the new buyer,” a moneyed international collector who is less interested in buying in bulk, or buying the hot name, than in securing blue-chip works.

“I can’t think of a work of art breaking or having achieved a huge price this season that didn’t receive some bid from either Russia, Asia or the Middle East,” said Thomas Seydoux, European head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s. Americans and Europeans still make up the bulk of the bidders for fine art, but, increasingly this summer, not at the very high end.

Produced by Amir Shoucri

These new buyers’ tastes vary, but they have one thing in common: They like their art easy on the eyes. With only a handful of exceptions, the summer’s top lots-including Gustav Klimt’s gilded portrait of Ria Munk ($27.9 million), a $10 million Liz Taylor by Andy Warhol or an Henri Matisse $9.8 million nude-were accessibly attractive, and potentially easy to resell, if necessary. “Pictures need to be … decorative more than ever,” said Mr. Seydoux. Ugly or understated art was often marooned on the block.

International collectors don’t just buy different artwork, they also buy artwork differently. According to Thea Westreich, president of Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services, new collectors are buying over the Internet. “Looking at art on the Internet and in auction catalogs make it very easy for people to do business,” she said. That’s not ideal for galleries, who often rely on foot traffic and personal relationships, but it is good news for auction houses.

Indeed, the summer season (when auctions are traditionally not held in New York) kept the momentum going from the spring. Sotheby’s and Christie’s released formidable first-half results last week. Christie’s boasted a total of $2.57 billion in sales, up 46 percent from last year (but down 27 percent from 2008). Sotheby’s brought in slightly less, $2.2 billion, up a staggering 116 percent from 2009. (The total was still down 36 percent from 2008, and the auctioneer has trimmed some commissions it charges, which will trim its profits from those sales.)

Pricier art is recovering faster than bargain art: According to a survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, art-price increases in the $75,000-plus bracket doubled in the second quarter of 2010, compared with the first.

Erratic results this summer indicate the art market hasn’t completely regained its footing. The season yielded record prices for top lots, but many high-profile and middling works consistently sold below estimate, if at all. “It’s all about trophy hunting-people want the best of the best, and they’re willing to really pay for that,” said art adviser Barbara Guggenheim, a partner at Guggenheim, Asher, Associates. “What they tend to collect first is the Impressionist pictures and come to the contemporary ones a bit later,” she said.

This might explain the relatively lackluster results from the summer’s contemporary art sales. Although Chris Ofili, Jules de Balincourt and several others set artist records and shattered estimates at the Christie’s auction, Philips de Pury failed to sell more than half its lots, and Sotheby’s results were mixed.

Experts caution against drawing too many conclusions from the summer season, which includes only a half-dozen high-profile sales, sometimes with fewer than 60 works. Still, the record-setting sales signal an uptick in confidence.

A Summer of Auction Stars: The Art World Sniffs, Hopefully, a Recovery