Art market

Is New York taking over from London for Old Master drawings?

Christie's cancel a London sale and European dealers are flocking to the US to buy and sell

Is New York now the centre of the Old Master drawings market? Christie's decision to hold for the first time its main winter sale of Old Master drawings in New York rather than London may not at first seem that significant. After all Sotheby's have been doing that for three years now. Furthermore Christie's, at least, continue to hold their most important sale in London in the summer and London remains the centre of expertise for both houses. Nevertheless Stephen Ongpin of Colnaghi's New York who has experience of both markets thinks there has been a significant shift in the centre of gravity.

He points to the veritable stampede of European dealers who exhibited at the Works on Paper and Armory fairs last year and the unprecedented number of dealers shows currently on view. Luca Baroni thinks that three quarters of the market is now based in New York. "European dealers have taken a long time to realise it; now they are piling in". His view is confirmed by one of the dealers at the head of the stampede – Sabrina Förster from Düsseldorf, showing for the second time at the Shepherd Gallery, and by the presence of two other German dealers; Thomas Leclaire, showing jointly at Mark Brady's, and Martin Moeller. Bruno de Bayser, who effectively dominates the French drawings market gave his first exhibition in New York last May and of the dozen European dealers who exhibited at last year's Armory Fair, ten will be returning this year and there will be a number of significant additions.

So what do the auction houses think of this apparent shift in the market? Sotheby's Gregory Rubenstein thinks that there is "a definite tendency towards New York" pointing to the success of their star lots on 10 January, the Van Orley drawings which came from Europe and were strongly competed for by American institutions. The shift he thinks is particularly marked with the bigger priced and more decorative lots though he also pointed out that American buyers had become very much more sophisticated and discerning.

In terms of number of sales held, the drawings market was still weighted towards Europe, where three out of four sales are still held, but in value terms Sotheby's New York had outstripped London by around 30% for two years running now. Christie's Hugo Chapman on the other hand thinks people still like going to London to buy: "It's a circus: and in July the circus comes to town", but he admits that they have no plans for a London sale next December; with Sotheby's out of the market the buyers were simply not bothering to travel. This may explain why Christie's London totalled only £809,000 in Old Master drawings last year, whereas New York sold £1,690,000, twice that amount, and that doesn't include last Thursday's highly successful $3.3 million drawing sale. Anxious to dispel any suspicions that they might be following Sotheby's lead, the official reason given by Christie's for their decision to hold a 300-lot January sale in New York is a logistical one: with two important American collections available for sale it was easier to hold the sale there rather than shipping the goods to London.

But this does not explain why many of the most important drawings being offered by both houses last week had been shipped over from Europe. So what is the real explanation? New York dealer Mark Brady thinks the auctioneers are aiming at the American retail market. If they are aiming to cut out the middle man, it is bound to make things more difficult for dealers, particularly those without a strong European client base whose goods will look rather shop-soiled by the time they reach their ultimate destinations.

So what are the other implications of the shift? One result is that the market is likely to be even more conditioned by American taste. Traditionally this was decorative rather than "print-room" but this is no longer true. Three drawings by Carmontelle, formerly a byword in Park Avenue chic, met a lukewarm response at Christie's on Thursday and two by Boilly, again very fashionable in the 1980s, failed to find a buyer. More serious was the relatively patchy performance of the group of Venetian eighteenth-century Venetian drawings mustered by Sotheby's. As Luca Baroni put it, no longer can drawings just be easy on the eye: Americans are looking for the challenge of the unusual. Perhaps in response to the influx of European dealers in New York, buyers have become more selective and paradoxically more eclectic.

Supply dictates that Europe will continue the principal auction outlet for drawings, but as a retail centre, London is likely to become increasingly marginalised. The circus will still be coming to London in July, but with so many of the performers committed to New York as their preferred exhibition venue, it may be a comparatively motley affair.