Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Art Market - What the heck is Going on Today

We had such a strong response from our last newsletter on what was happening in the art market we have continued the thread in this issue. And it has been crazy market...

The Kimbell Museum with its reported 350 million dollar endowment has just purchased only one of four paintings attributed to Michelangelo (1475-1564). The 18 ½ -by-13 1/4 painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony, is oil-and-tempera on poplar panel and is thought to have been painted when the master was only 12 to 13 years old. The purchase price has not been disclosed but the estimates range from 25 to 69 million, the latter being the price paid at Sothebys in 2002 for a Ruebens. It is interesting to note in this economic climate that the Met had first refusal but had to pass because of current financial concerns. A New York dealer bought the piece with investors last summer in London for 2 million dollars. The painting will be shown at the Met this summer and then will be placed on view at the Kimbell in the fall.

On May 15th the Chaim Gross collection of African and Oceanic was offered at Sothebys in New York. Of the 81 lots 16 failed to sell. For many Chaim Gross, having begun to collect in the early 1930's, was the last of , as Sothebys noted, "the first generation" of African collectors. A noted American sculptor, Chaim was aided in his collecting by Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine in New York. Some might say that this was a sale with aesthetics versus pedigree with the later prevailing. Critics looked at this sale as being uneven and hyped beyond what the art itself justified. Certainly this negative assessment is somewhat tempered by the superb kneeling Senufo figure selling for $758,500 and the Mbaka figure on the cover sailing over the pre-sale estimate of $600,000 and ending up at $1,258,500. For me the sleeper in the sale was the Yaka mask pictured in Lot 56 and estimated between $6,000 and $9,000. Apparently some buyers agreed driving the price to $22,500. Considering the power, obvious age, and pedigree, i think it is worth more. But in the end it was a good morning for Sothebys grossing almost 5 million dollars.
Sothebys afternoon sale on May 15th also had some fine African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian art. Of the 94 lots offered 31 failed to sell. The auction house was, however, I am certain delighted that the sale grossed $5,693,813 with the buyers premium. Quite apparently, at least in this sale, it sems the 6 1/2" x 6 1/2" format did not deter buyers. Some might suggest the high buy in rate might indicate otherwise; however, the final tally is truly the bottom line. Collectors of West Mexico will certainly be delighted with the Nayarit pair that brought $314,500, which may be a new record for this area. I coveted from afar the great Papuan Gulf figure(Lot 146) that apparently impressed a few others as well as it sold for $1,202,500. Some among the buyers knew the Tsonga/Nguni snuff container was once owned by Ray Wielgus and ignored the estimate of $6,000 to $9,000 chasing it to $43,750.

In the May 20th American Indian sale of 226 lots 85 failed to sell, a high buy in rate of 38%. There were some stellar pieces that did quite well The pair of Cheyenne parfleches featured in Gaylord Torrence "bible" on the topic did very well bringing in $116,500. Morton and Estelle Sosland's Kwakiutl sun mask exceeded the high estimate and sold for $266,500. The Barry Goldwater pony beaded blanket strip he donated to the Smoki Museum in Prescott failed to sell at the low estimate of $100,000. Some experts felt the early date of 1830's being tossed around was a bit early for this piece. Sothebys claimed that only four are known, so it will be interesting to see where this piece will finally end up. The Dat so la lee basket (ht. 6 1/4") was estimated to sell between $175,000 and $225,000 but also failed to meet the reserve. Some might attribute this failure to the limited number of buyers at this level, the size of the basket, the sluggish economy, and probably all the above. The total sales with commissions realized $2,681,694. Not bad even with the high buy in.
These sales were significant in that they did offer some encouragement that all is not doom and gloom in the tribal art world. Certainly one might argue that the reserves in Sothebys Indian sale were not realistic and had they been a bit lower the buy in rate would also have dropped. The June sales in Europe are equally important in assessing the health of the market. Critical to the success of these auctions will be strong American participation. Without it I doubt whether the economic malaise Europe is experiencing will motivate many buyers to buy. The great material will always sell. Look instead to the $5,000 to $50,000 price range to see which way the trends are pointing.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

IFAR - What can you own, buy, or sell legally

The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has stepped up in a way that should make a major contribution in helping collectors, curators, dealers, appraisers, museum directors, and the media know what can be bought, sold, or owned within the boundaries of over 100 different countries. IFAR has done a great job so far and vows to constantly update the data they have on their website which is viewable at In the past it was very difficult to sort through the various U.S. government websites that listed import bans, bilateral treaties, and penalties. Some other sites that provided information have been so political that it has become difficult to sort out exactly what the rules are in black and white. IFAR does not pontificate in offering the relevant legislation from country to country. It is also interesting that they have provided some case history reflecting enforcement of the laws.

Politics will always impact the legislation of cultural property and there will be swings in enforcement with each new administration in each country. Having said this it is clear that the trend is definitely moving away from an open market and towards more restriction. In this environment if you choose to be a participant you better be aware of the rules. My advice is to log on often to to stay current.

IFAR also offers an authentication service, which is something as a professional I have never been very enthusiastic in exploring. As a non profit, it would be impossible for them to have in-house experts in all the fields that they service. That to me means that at least some outsourcing must be contracted to meet the obligations and demands of their clientele. With the internet it is easier now and probably cheaper to find and check out your own experts. Admittedly, I have not evaluated IFAR's price structure in this area. It would, therefore, be prudent to evaluate and compare all your resources before proceeding.

Usually requests for authentication or consulting services are made after the fact when the object has already been purchased and a problem has occurred. Maybe IFAR.s website will motivate people to do their homework before the problem occurs saving money and aggravation for all. Regardless IFAR should get kudos for this free resource.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sothebys - Getting Small - Good or Bad?

Like many Sothebys subscribers I was a bit shocked in the last several weeks when I received my tribal art catalogs. The old catalog format was 10 1/2" by 8 1/4"... the new format for some of their catalogs is 6 1/2" x 6 1/2". I have no idea how much money is saved in catalog costs and postage by going small but the idea was rationalized as being handy enough to fit in your pocket. The format might fit in a big purse but certainly not in a man's pocket unless he was wearing cargo pants, which is not seen often at the auctions. Both buyer and seller are diasadvantaged by this move. The seller's must log on to the website to get a good view and to check out any research or collection history provided by the auction house. In this economy removing obstacles for the buyers seems more prudent. From the seller's perspective it would have been nice to be informed of the change before consigning the goods. I can't speak for all consignors but I know a client I am representing that has consigned some major objects was not advised. Had we known prior to the sale as consignors we might well have waited until we saw how this new format worked out. It seems short sighted on the part of Sothebys when the differences between selling and not selling could easily be six figures. And remember Sothebys also charges many sellers extra fees for insurance and photography which further offsets costs. We will all find out what happens this next week at the tribal sales.

Sothebys has also, according to the New York Times, sent out more than 10,000 USB sticks (thumb drives) which feature electronic versions of catalogs. This decision is exciting for a number of reasons. First it is handy and you can put it in your pocket. As a collector you can examine all the data including high resolution photographs. It is easily downloaded and sent to colleagues. So what's the difference between between going online and using the thumb drive... simple, ease of use. I don't need to click through all those screens. I have the data where I want it, when I want it. I could live with a 6 1/2" x 6 1/2" format if I had the thumb drive with it.