One-offs, but reassuring signs to the market—especially to Paris?

'Old Europe', with its expertise and long traditions, is suddenly looking stronger

Two “celebrity” sales have just produced astonishing results. In the teeth of the worst recession the world has known since the 1930s, as stock markets continue to plunge and banks are gripped in an unprecedented credit crunch, art collectors were prepared to dig deep into their pockets to snaffle something from the Christie’s sale of the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection held in February in Paris or from the home of Gianni Versace. “There was no crisis of liquidity in the Grand Palais this week; there was no moderation in collectors’ spending,” said the London dealer Thomas Gibson as he departed the Saint Laurent sale on the first evening. It racked up almost half a billion dollars ($483.8m) for 700 lots of silver, paintings, sculpture, art deco furniture and objets d’art that were sold in a seven-session auction that spanned three days, mobilised eight auctioneers and attracted over 35,000 people to the preview alone.

Then in London on 18 March, the far inferior furnishings and pictures from the extravagant Lake Como villa of murdered designer Gianni Versace also found fervent take-up. The 454 lots, many of low value, in Sotheby’s sale fetched £7.4m ($10.4m), double the presale estimate.

So what does this mean for the art market? Does the Yves Saint Laurent sale indicate that the market is living in a parallel universe, ignoring the crisis beyond its gilded doors and set to continue its ten-year boom?

I think not. The Saint Laurent sale was a one-in-a-lifetime, last-chance event, superbly orchestrated by Christie’s. The combination of the name of Yves St Laurent and world-wide media attention ensured a blockbusting combination. Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé also collected in traditional fields and their holdings had been off the market for years. Much was of very high quality and the ensemble and provenance conferred an aura that overrode a few weaknesses. So the sale perfectly matched the art market mantra: exceptional works with excellent provenance, fresh to the market, will sell incredibly well. But it is not easily reproducible.

Although these prices will not be seen again, the sale sent a welcome sign to dealers. “It has certainly helped to restore confidence in the market,” notes art dealer Nicholas Maclean, of the London and New York partnership Eykyn Maclean. It handed the trade the persuasive argument that art has proved to hold its value better than other investments. A first test, the Tefaf art fair in Maastricht (report, pp60-61), saw strong sales for old masters and other works of art. Auction houses, busy collecting for their crucial May and June sales, are also reporting heightened interest from vendors.

One aspect that has been largely overlooked is how this sale, and the Versace sale as well, may indicate a shift in the geographical distribution of the market. At the end of the Saint Laurent sale, Pierre Bergé said: “I wanted to give Paris back its place in the art market. This has shown that art can not only be sold in London or New York, and I think that other sales will now be held here.” France’s share of the art market has been progressively eroded since the 1950s, when it was the dominant location and sales at Drouot surpassed those of Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined.

France’s decline was due to its creaking and protectionist system of auctioneering. It missed the boat for contemporary art, which has been the most powerful force in the recent boom, driven largely by New York. But now contemporary art is the most damaged sector of the market, and fields where connoisseurship is still important have come back centre stage. “Old Europe”, with its expertise and long collecting traditions, is suddenly looking stronger and stronger.

The writer is an editor at large of The Art Newspaper

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