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
"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
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
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
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
"The good collectors are back, the really serious buyers who
never accepted the idiotic prices," said New York dealer Holger
Braasch, who specializes in German Expressionist works. …