EAST BUYS WEST
The efforts of auction houses and dealers to help Chinese, Russian and Indian collectors acquire a taste for Western art are starting to pay off, judging by recent sales
With the wrap-up of Old Masters week and the Masterpiece fair in London, an exhausted art market subsided into its summer torpor. Dealers, auction houses and consultants are taking a break before considering their autumn plans, while the clients have drifted off to their villas and yachts. Results were strong across all categories and the only surprise is how much art the market seems able to absorb. There is now a dizzying array of art fairs, auctions, art weeks and museum and dealer exhibitions to attend.
One feature of the recent sales that has been widely reported by the auction rooms is an accelerating interest in Western art from non-Western buyers. The auction rooms are tired of their boom/bust business model, which relies heavily on the health of the Western economies; they rapidly expand in boom times and then have to downsize and fire 20 per cent of their workforce in every recession. They realised that if they could tap into the rapidly growing economies of the BRICs and the MiddleEast they could increase demand and perhaps break free from the Western economic cycle.
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Initially the BRICs only showed interest in their own art and the auction houses defended disappointing sales by stressing the range of nationalities among the buyers. However, massive marketing drives by the auction rooms, and to a lesser extent the dealers, have started to pay dividends. Over the last year, buyers from these countries have emerged as a driving force in the Western art market.
Pictured above: El Greco’s Chirst on the Cross and (top) St Dominic in Prayer were bought by a Russian collector
At Christie’s Contemporary art sale in New York in May, $495 million was raised, a figure described by Christie’s itself as ‘staggering’ and a record for any single auction. The sale included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock and established sixteen new world records, with 23 works selling for more than $5 million.
Steven Murphy, CEO of Christie’s International, said new collectors from all over the world were helping drive the sale: ‘Twenty-five per cent of our buyers last year were new to Christie’s, and four or five of the key lots tonight went to people who have never bought here before.’
The trend continued at the Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in London on 3 July, where top lots were bought by Chinese, Russian and Indian buyers. Russian-speaking buyers spent more than £15 million ($22.6 million) at the auction, battling against a record number of bidders from emerging economies.
A Russian buyer, bidding over the telephone, fought off an Asian underbidder to pay £9.2 million for St Dominic in Prayer by El Greco. The price, almost double the high estimate, set an auction record for the 16th-century painter. The painting of St Dominic hadn’t been at auction in recent years and appeared from the extensive collection of the late German philanthropist Gustav Rau. Proceeds from its sale have been donated to Unicef. The same buyer, clearly an admirer of El Greco, spent another £3.4 million on Christ on the Cross.
In line with its upper estimate, the sale raised £35 million from 47 lots. At least eight of these, worth £15.8 million, were bought by Russian-speaking telephone bidders. Clients from 33 countries participated in the sale, with a record number of
registered bidders from Asia and the Middle East, said the auction house. It said that almost 30 per cent of the works were bought by clients from the former CIS states.
At Christie’s Old Masters sale on 2 July, there was a similar pattern of buyers participating from emerging economies. Most posted bids by telephone or through dealers, but Adar Poonawalla, son and heir of the Indian biotech billionaire Cyrus S Poonawalla (who himself has been actively bidding in recent Impressionist sales), was in the room and bought two paintings of heads of bearded men.
The first, catalogued as being from the studio of Rembrandt, cost him £59,475, and the second, Portrait of a Cleric by Titian, £781,875. The Poonawallas, the leading manufacturers of child vaccines via the Serum Institute of India, are also major breeders of racehorses and now appear to be building an important painting collection.
The major casualty at the Christie’s sale was ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’: The Artist Eating Oysters in an Interior (1660) by the Dutch artist Jan Steen, which had been overestimated at £7-10 million. This came from the Lowther family of Lowther Castle in Penrith, Cumbria, and had been acquired by the first Earl of Lonsdale in The Hague in 1763.
The central figure is a self-portrait of Steen being offered oysters and a glass of wine in front of a painting of the Roman goddess Fortuna, who is precariously balanced on an orb. Oyster shells on the floor, half-peeled fruit, the legend ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ inscribed on the mantelpiece and the young woman offering wine are designed to remind the viewer of temptation’s and fortune’s fickle path.
The picture was in good condition and a fine example of Steen’s painting, but the moralising tone seems to have been too much for today’s audience and all the allegory was probably rather mystifying to the emerging market buyers.
For a long time, people had puzzled over why buyers from these emerging nations seemed to show such little interest in Western art while actively pursuing their own. Some thought the Chinese were put off by the religious content of Old Masters, while others thought it was a lack of confidence and these nationalities were more assured buying their own art. Whatever the reason for this previous reluctance, the situation is changing.
The art world appears to be following the shifting balance of power from West to East towards economies that were formerly colonised or remote. In addition to repatriating their own art that was either smuggled abroad during difficult times (Russia), removed at gunpoint (the Old Summer Palace in Beijing) or bought or removed by colonial overlords (India), the emerging economies have overcome their initial nerves and are now starting to enjoy collecting Western art. Quite what ramifications this will have for prices of Western art remains to be seen, but it would appear that if this continues, prices will only increase.
Ivan Lindsay’s book, The History of Loot and Stolen Art, will be published in September oldmasters.net