A U.S. collector paid a record $2 million for a Edvard Munch print of a doomed femme fatale, and a Russian gave $65,000 for a crocodile handbag in auctions this month as top works attracted wealthy buyers.
Asian collectors also set the pace at auctions of wine and English silver in London that followed sales of Impressionist and contemporary art where billionaires remained selective.
Choosy collectors are looking for signs of a market recovery. Buyers are only willing to pay the largest sums for the best works as sellers push up estimates again and test demand, dealers said.
“Sotheby’s and Christie’s are especially good at getting their top buyers for the key lots,” Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the London-based Fine Art Fund, said in an interview.
“There were a lot of disappointments in the middle range,” Hoffman said. “The rich don’t feel the need to buy at the moment unless it’s really special. And then they’ll pay a lot of money for it.”
A private collector, bidding by telephone, bought Munch’s Expressionist lithograph “Madonna” at the Bonhams July 13 print sale.
The 1.3 million pounds ($2 million) price, with fees, was a U.K. auction record for a print and doubled the 500,000-pound low estimate, based on hammer prices, said Bonhams.
The Norwegian artist’s quasi-religious portrayal of a seductress was inspired by his mistress, Dagny Juel. After numerous affairs, Juel was shot dead at the age of 33 by a young lover in a hotel in Tbilisi.
The colored print was from the first of seven different states produced between 1895 and 1902. It had never been offered at auction before and had been kept for more than 40 years in the collection of the British abstract painter Frank Avray Wilson, who died in 2009.
The result makes the “Madonna” the second most expensive print in the world, said Bonhams.
In November 2007, at the height of the market, the Oslo auction house Grev Wedels Plass sold Munch’s similarly dated “Vampire II” for 11.8 million Norwegian kroner ($2.1 million), said the database Artnet.
A private Russian client paid 42,050 pounds for a 2010 “Bleu Abyss” crocodile “Birkin” at Christie’s International’s July 14 auction of jewelry and Hermes handbags, the London-based auction house said.
The price was not far off the record 49,250 pounds paid for a 2004 black crocodile Birkin at Christie’s in November. The 81 Hermes handbags included in the latest sale raised 476,000 pounds, said Christie’s.
“It’s all about supply and demand,” Patricia Frost, Christie’s director of costume and textiles, said in an interview. “You might have enough money, but you can’t go into Hermes and buy a crocodile Birkin. Auctions don’t have waiting lists.”
Christie’s handbag sales are a specialist luxury market with little premium added by celebrity associations, according to Frost.
“Mind you, if we offered a ‘Kelly’ that had been owned by Grace Kelly, that would be quite something,” she said.
The silver record was set at Sotheby’s on July 6 when an Asian collector paid a high-estimate 2.5 million pounds for a 4-foot-wide early 18th-century wine cistern.
The recently rediscovered piece, weighing 168 pounds and hallmarked for 1705 and 1706, had been made for Thomas Wentworth, 3rd Baron Raby, Queen Anne’s Ambassador Extraordinary to Berlin.
It had been unrecorded since 1722.
“Over the last six months we’ve noticed a marked increase in buying from clients in China at our sales in London and New York,” Cynthia Harris, Sotheby’s U.K.-based head of silver, said in an interview. “They’re concentrating on English silver and focusing on traditional key elements such as quality, condition and provenance to influence their acquisitions.”
Asian buyers also dominated the top end of the auction market for fine wines in London this summer.
All three of the most expensive lots at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions on June 10 and July 14 fell to Asian bidders at above-estimate prices, according to the companies’ e-mailed results lists.
Christie’s top lot was a group of six magnums of Romanee-Conti’s 1971 vintage at 71,300 pounds, while at Sotheby’s a 12-bottle case of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild ‘82 fetched 39,100 pounds, beating its estimate, while another case in similar condition sold for 36,800 pounds.
“Nearly 50 percent of the lots were sold to Asian-based clients as many of the top lots headed east,” Chris Munro, director of Christie’s London-based wine department, said in an e-mailed statement.
Christie’s 747-lot sale took 1.9 million pounds with 95 percent of the material selling, Sotheby’s 601-lot offering raised 1.2 million pounds with a success rate of 98.5 percent. Both totals, which included fees, were in excess of upper estimates, based on hammer prices.
Booming demand from Asia has meant that unusually high selling rates of over 90 percent have become the norm at Sotheby’s and Christie’s international wine auctions.
Bonhams made 117,600 pounds with fees for a 17th-century brass automata clock on July 14. Made in France, the device was modeled as a lion that rolled its eyes to the time and roared the chime every hour. It had been expected to fetch as much as 100,000 pounds. The clock was also unusual in that it featured both an armillary sphere and automata combination, said Bonhams, which achieved a total of 716,000 pounds at its specialist clocks and barometers auction.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)