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.