Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Relations

Magazine article The Spectator

Rich Relations

Article excerpt

It was always said in the Eighties that everything had its price. No more. Now even the auction houses have become rather choosy, preferring to nurture their clients and their individual markets by virtually curating high-quality, good-looking, selling exhibitions rather than including just any old thing they happen to be offered.

Walking in to view Christie's annual German and Austrian art sale last week, I was struck afresh by the saleroom-as-museum phenomenon. The auction houses have always offered some of the best free shows in town; the difference now is that sales are presented like museum exhibitions. It was just like walking into the Royal Academy. Across the imposing entrance, a banner proclaimed a title, inside, the walls were specially lined in dramatic lapis-blue felt, the pictures captioned - in the past, there have even been didactic panels. The German Expressionists looked as good as they could in any museum - and indeed several had previously been on loan to, or were the property of major museums. Taken as a whole, we were treated to a respectable overview of German and Austrian art of the first half of the 20th century (the 19th was more patchily represented). Prints, drawings and sculpture bolstered the core of paintings to form a bumper catalogue of 250 lots, so heavy it might well have been an exhibition catalogue.

Christie's launched its specialist German and Austrian art sales in their present form in London in 1994 after noticing that good German Expressionists sold in New York or London Impressionist and Modern sales fetched far higher prices than those sold on the Continent. Given the large amount of good quality material still in private hands and fresh to the market (and the paucity, and cost, of good French Impressionist and Modern pictures), they had the makings of a lush new international market.

The first sale proved a spectacular success, setting six new auction records for individual artists and totalling 7.7 million. The records continued and so did the price rise. Last year's crop topped 32 million even without the rare Klimt landscape which fetched the fabulous price of 14.5 million, it was still an 18 million sale. While some 85 per cent of buyers in 1994 were German or Austrian, the percentage had dropped to 40-45 last year, with seven out of the top ten lots selling to international buyers. (A trifle perverse, then, to continue to give only German titles and quote chunks of text without a translation? …

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