AT THE European Art Fair in Maastricht business is good. On the opening day Simon Dickinson of Jermyn Street sold Degas's 1886 pastel of a girl braiding her hair, Toilette Matinale, for Pounds 8.5 million while Colnaghi's of Bond Street took Pounds 4.5 million for an early Rubens Portrait of A Gentleman.
Ben Janssens, the St James's dealer in Chinese Art was overrun by a rush hour in which 30 pieces sold, headed by an 18th century lacquered panel for Pounds 100,000, while the Mayfair Antiquities dealer Charles Ede parted with 11 items, notably a 1st century AD bronze of Hercules. These tales are typical, with similar stories being told around the Fair. Johnny van Haeften Old Master Pictures in Duke Street, St James's, had its best ever start at Maastricht, selling 12 pictures on day one and holding six more on reserve. The gathering will attract 60,000 visitors including an unusually large group of curators and directors from 150 museums around the world. Virtually the entire London art trade has descended on Holland for the world's largest selling fair, which is a barometer of the market and a giant art world party. But the real story is that, for the finest art, prices are rising even higher than a year ago, in defiance of the credit crunch.
"The seller of my Rubens bought the picture about a year ago," revealed Konrad Bernheimer, chairman of Colnaghi's, 19th century specialists. "Quite recently he came to me in embarrassment and said that things were not as good for him as they had been. I stopped him immediately and said I was happy to take his picture back. I have been glad to tell him that not only did I sell it on day one but that I have won him a very nice profit." Maastricht is awash with money, personified in the majestic presence of the big-spending Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani from Doha, Qatar. As we head into what economists are now calling a "Great Recession", the art market would appear to be the only part of the world economy that is functioning close to normal. The market has form. It shrugged off Black Monday in October 1987 within a week and went on to stage the Art Boom of the 20th century.
Wall Street slumped for 15 months before recovering its Black Monday level. While Wall Street collapsed over dotcom in 2000, art grew mightily and simply ignored the bombings on 11 September 2001. In the past four years most art market sectors have risen by 200- 450 per cent in price while Wall Street's Dow Jones Industrial Average managed only a 30 per cent rise in eight years. Last November there were fears that the art bubble had burst. Over several glittering evening auctions in New York, key works failed to meet their reserve and the market saw a slide of 10 to 20 per cent in prices in Impressionist and Modern pictures and contemporary art. That result is now looking like an American aberration.
Two recent armory fairs in New York have also been dull, report dealers, while auction results in London, Geneva, Paris and Hong Kong at all price levels have been stronger. Whatever the truth, New York's autumn fall sent prices no further down than to the levels of last summer, or 4.6 per cent down from the market peak. On the Contemporary Art 100 Index of the world's leading art statistician, Robin Duthy, February 2009 shows the same figure as August 2008. The top five per cent of contemporary art prices have, however, fallen back to the level of last June as owners prove more reluctant to sell. June 2008 on the Duthy Index is still three times the level of May 2007 and reflects the steepest rise in contemporary art values since the mid-19th century.
On the face of it, the art market appears to be defying gravity. But not everyone agrees with this simplistic interpretation. "It cannot be as brilliant as that," responds Wendy Goldsmith, London art advisor in 19th and 20th century pictures. "The Duthy Index measures the prices of artworks that have sold at auction. …