Walking Man kick-starts art market

By Arifa Akbar

The turning point that Britain's ailing art market has been praying for seems to have arrived at last.

Following the incredible £65 million ($149 million) sale of the Giacometti sculpture L'Homme Qui Marche I (Walking Man 1) - which, within eight minutes, set a new world record at Sotheby's auction house this week by becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction - analysts say the market has finally got its mojo back.

This week's series of sales, seen by many as a weather vane of the state of the art market, has started promisingly despite considerable anxiety over the lack of sellers coming forward with high-quality works in the recession.

But yesterday, Sotheby's said the average lot in its Impressionist and Modern Art sale on Thursday was worth £4,736,398 - the highest ever for a London sale. It included Rene Magritte's Le Beau Navire which exceeded expectations by fetching £3.7 million.

This week, Christie's sold Picasso's Tete de Femme (Jacqueline) for £8.1 million, more than double its highest estimate, and four other works reached more than £5 million.

The results, said Giovanna Bertazzoni, the head of the auction house's Impressionist and Modern Art department, prove that "demand is high" and that sellers could now "feed the appetite of these buyers by offering a greater supply than in recent months".

This could not have been said a few months ago.

The art-market bubble finally burst in 2009, as prices plunged, sellers became timid and the number of paintings up for auction dwindled dramatically.

Until recently, auction houses were desperate for high-quality works of art to sell, but few collectors were willing to let go of their Picassos, Cezannes or Matisses, at a time when the banking economy was collapsing, for fear of losing their liquid assets.

Now, the sellers appear to be back - although few can predict if auction houses will ever be able to revisit the inflated prices of 2007 and 2008.

Georgina Adam, market editor at The Art Newspaper, said she had discerned a distinct upturn.

"I don't think the bust has turned to boom but I do think there's been a recovery. Sellers are coming back, if you look at sales. This time last year, people didn't know how much they were worth, but they now have a better idea," she said.

However, she added that prices were still down compared with 2008, and that some collectors were also "distress-selling" after experiencing financial difficulties. Indeed, the Giacometti came up for auction because of the banking crisis. It was part of the collection of the collapsed Dresdner Bank and was being sold by the new owners, Commerzbank.

Sotheby's - which sold just three paintings in excess of £10 million last year - has placed an estimated value of more than £10 million for three works in its sales of contemporary, Impressionist and modern works this week.

The auction house said it had seen the number of works for sale rise dramatically: in February 2008, there were 70 lots in the evening contemporary sales, which fell to 27 last year.

This year, there are 80 lots. Market confidence returned following the success of last November's sales, in which Sotheby's sold Andy Warhol's 200 One Dollar Bills for US$43.8 million ($63.6 million), three times its highest estimate. Christie's has also seen buyers more than double.

Both auction houses agreed that there was too little supply and too much demand in the market, with not enough masterpieces coming through.

Sellers were unwilling to consign their best paintings in such an unstable climate, because they did not want to put their money in the bank at a time when several were collapsing.

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