By Dan Levy
San Francisco Chronicle
Three years after the bottom fell out of the overheated art market, auction houses and dealers are quietly enjoying a worldwide surge in sales and a renewed confidence in the market.
Christie's and Sotheby's, the world's biggest auction houses, just closed the spring season with record sales _ including $26.8 million paid for Cezanne's "Still Life with Apples" _ and steady growth virtually across the board, from Chinese paintings to European illuminated manuscripts.
The art market had collapsed under the weight of supercharged speculative bidding, especially in the field of contemporary art. The works of new artists were bought and sold like stocks, and blue-chip pieces fetched astronomical prices _ $82.5 million was paid for Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Guichet."
"People in the late '80s were just buying pictures with names on them," said one major Bay Area collector, referring to the art-as-commodity craze. "They were young and inexperienced. They were just buying to buy, or they read about something in Vogue."
But art experts today report a market comeback _ except in contemporary art _ based on more realistic prices and the re-entry of connoisseurs who were scared off by the speculative buying. Furthermore, the market has been strengthened by new Asian investors.
"If you look among dealers in Europe, Asia and the United States, the market seems to be heating up," said Rand Castile, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. "But they're not buying nonsense. They're buying works of real lasting quality and value."
At Sotheby's sale of Impressionist paintings, drawings and sculptures in New York in May, the price paid for the Cezanne still life was a record for the artist and far above the $11.5 million estimate listed by the auction house.
Eight other lots sold for more than $1 million. The sale generated a total of $75.9 million, the highest total in three years at Sotheby's.
At Christie's New York Impressionist sale in May, six of the sale's top 10 works were purchased for prices above their high estimates, including Monet's "La Jetee du Havre" at $9.6 million. In November, Matisse's "Harmony in Yellow" was sold for a record $14.5 million.
In London, Sotheby's had its best Impressionist sale in four years when it sold 84 works for $30.31 million in mid-June. Christie's sold 82 percent of the Modern paintings offered, including Renoir's "Jeune Fille" for $8.4 million and Modigliani's "Tete de Jeune Fille" for $4.2 million. It was the highest sale percentage for the auction house in London since April 1990.
James Roundell, head of Christie's 19th and 20th century picture department, said the works were "robustly competed for" and cited the "wide international interest" from Europe, Southeast Asia and North and South America.
Three years ago, the market was so weak that more than half of Christie's and Sotheby's contemporary offerings went unsold at auction.
"The good collectors are …