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The Connoisseur Comes To The Fore

James Berry Hill plans to bring a Childe Hassam flag painting that has dropped out of sight for years. Jeffrey C. Loria has been saving a gold-on-bronze cardinal by Giacomo Manzu for the occasion. Richard York will be offering an 1827 James Peale still life. Roland Augustine, meanwhile, will have a choice landscape by Gerhard Richter, Richard Solomon will bring a rare 1639 Rembrandt self-portrait, and Manny Silverman will be offering a Sam Francis study for a 1959 mural.

Holiday gifts for some art-lovers? They would have to be very lucky ones. True, it's Christmastime in the city, and everyone seems to be running around searching for novel gifts. But Hill, Augustine, and the others are all art dealers, scrambling for a different reason. They've got to decide what to bring to the Art Dealers Association of America's annual Art Show, which takes place in February at New York's Seventh Regimental Armory on Park Avenue. What they and their rivals show at the premier art fair in the U.S. says a lot about the state of the art market.

COBWEBS AND ALL. A few years back, after the market crashed in 1990-91, dealers stooped to conquer: Many put forward plenty of low- and mid-price works of art in hopes of appealing to new, perhaps younger collectors. But 1995 will be different. The reigning themes are "high quality" and "fresh to market." Says Loria: "People are looking for things that have not been available for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years, things heading toward the word `rare."'

His Manzu, which comes from the artist's family, has never been on the market and is available for $325,000. York's Peale, meanwhile, has been in a museum collection since 1847 and is tagged at $150,000. The Rembrandt etching is considered to be the artist's most important self-portrait; it carries a $350,000 price tag. The $2 million Hassam, one in a series of about 30 flag paintings, comes from a collection so private that many experts didn't know what had happened to the work, which uniquely combines a background done in Impressionistic style with realistic Ashcan-school characteristics in the foreground. As for the Francis, it graced the collection of the artist, who died this past fall (asking price: $75,000). The important Richter also came directly from the artist and is available for $485,000--if the museum that's considering its purchase doesn't move first.

Those motifs--quality and freshness--dominated this fall's New York auctions of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie's and Sotheby's, too. Bidders competed furiously for the best works, such as Toulouse-Lautrec's Danseuse Ajustant Son Maillot. It went for $4.8 million, vs. a presale estimate of $1.4 million to $1.8 million. The same held true in contemporary art, which has been lagging behind other art categories. Andy Warhol's Shot Red Marilyn, for example, fetched $3.6 million, topping its presale estimate of $2.5 million to $3 million (and just below the $4.1 million it commanded in the red-hot market of 1989).

WAITING GAME. The art world, of course, has bandied around the words "fresh" and "quality" before, almost mantra-like, to characterize the market. Unfortunately for dealers and auctioneers, a lot of that was wishful thinking. In reality, after the crash, many buyers and sellers simply dropped out, leaving a market that was decidedly thinner and often illiquid. Last May, just when sellers thought the market had finally stabilized, the big auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's faltered: Many works were left sitting on the block.

Even though prices in most categories, from Impressionist and Modern to contemporary to American art, had shrunk to half or a third of their 1988-89 peaks, buyers couldn't be enticed into the market. "For a long time now, people were waiting--for things to get better or for everything to crash," explains Thea Westreich, an art consultant. Confidence matters a lot in the art market.

Something appears to have happened during the past few months, though. Some collectors seem to have concluded that nothing dramatic is going to happen in either direction. "The markets have defined themselves clearly," Augustine says. By and large, buyers are savvy collectors--not speculators--who know quality when they see it. When something good comes on the market, "people are ready to pounce," says Loria. One sign that bodes well for the market: Art dealers, who for a long time have been sitting on too much inventory to add any, are far more willing to buy works at auction and privately than they were just a year ago.

FOND MEMORIES. If the logjam has broken, it may then be a good time to buy. But you must know what you're buying and be prepared to hold for the long term: A return to the over-the-top prices of the late '80s is unlikely. Although each artwork has its own dynamic, prices in most art categories are at 1987 or 1988 levels--before the huge runup that merited front-page headlines--according to auctioneers and dealers.

Robin Duthy, a London-based independent art analyst, concurs. Further, he believes that, although overall art prices are still declining, the rate is slowing. His Daily Telegraph Art 100 Index, a proprietary figure that encompasses auction prices for 100 top artists and sectors from Old Masters to contemporary, sat at 4,541 in January, 1994. It sank to 3,964 in July and 3,856 at the end of November. The figure (in which 1975 prices equal 1,000) peaked in 1990 at more than 9,000. "The worst of the slide seems to be over," he says.

Duthy also calculates 24 indexes for various art sectors, such as French Impressionism, German Expressionism, 19th century American painting, Latin American painting, and Surrealism. They show that prices in a few categories are starting to climb, albeit slowly. Among them: Old Masters, Barbizon-school paintings, and--most smartly--a category he calls "Modern U.S. painting, 1945-75." Those artists include Warhol, de Kooning, Twombly, Calder, Albers, and Motherwell.

Of course, no one should invest in art on the basis of Duthy's--or anyone's--calculations. But they, along with other weathervanes, might suggest a few potential directions for buyers. In contrast to past seasons, Americans seem to be the most active buyers at the moment--probably because the U.S. economy is heartier than those in Europe, Japan, and other art-buying strongholds.

Given the public's predilection to buy its own nation's art most, American art seems likely to firm up faster than other categories. Indeed, the American-art auctions that took place in early December were strong. (Duthy's indexes do not yet reflect those sales.) Sotheby's took in a total of $24.9 million--the highest sum in five years and almost as much as the $25.9 million Sotheby's scored at its evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art, normally a much larger category. Record auction prices were set for six artists at Sotheby's, including Edward Potthast and Norman Rockwell. Three others, including Thomas Moran, went into the record books at Christie's smaller sale. Buying embraced all categories of American art: Hudson River school, Impressionist, Modernist, Realist, and Western among them.

CAUTION RULES. Contemporary art is always iffier--there's so much more of it and the artists are still producing. Worse, it saw huge runups in the '80s, and some of those artists may never recover. If this is your interest, take the words about quality to heart. Many of the artists of the '80s, such as Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, and Robert Gober, have ardent fans. But even they are cautious. "I would only be buying the great pieces," Westreich says, citing Wool's Riot, which fetched $46,000, near its high estimate, at Christie's in November.

A key to even more contemporary--and likely lower-priced--work will be telegraphed in March when the Whitney Museum of American Art opens its Biennial. The '95 show is expected to include more paintings than the much-criticized '93 show, which was full of highly political videos and installation pieces. Many collectors say the Biennial over the years has proven to be a good clue to future market value. If so, keep an eye on such painters as Christian Schumann, Milton Resnick, Philip Taafe, Jane Freilicher, Helen Marden, Frank Moore, and Catherine Murphy. All will be in the show.

Buying art for investment is always chancy at best--and categories with the broadest appeal, such as Impressionism, are safest bets, if you can afford the best of them. But the most satisfying way to purchase art is to make sure you love the picture or the sculpture for its aesthetic value. Monetary rewards have to be considered a by-product, especially in today's thin art market.

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