The Art market clawed back another notch from the 2016 downturn after the all-important Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales in New York last week realised $1.6 billion (£1.23 billion). The total was $500 million more than last May, though still adrift of the record $2.74 billion set in May 2015.
As we have come to expect, the earlier period of Impressionist and Modern art came in second with $537.6 million, approximately half the amount of the post-war and contemporary sales which made $1.064 million. Which is not to say the Impressionist sales were without substance.
Christie’s star lot was a small and rare lifetime cast bronze head of a sleeping muse by Brancusi that excited passionate interest and sold for a double-estimate record $53.4 million. It was followed by a contorted Picasso portrait of Dora Maar on the outbreak of war in 1939 which sold within estimate for $45 million. The painting cost the seller, Dimitri Mavrommatis, $29 million in 2011 and sold to a Chinese bidder – one of several lots by Picabia, Braque, Chagall, Renoir and Monet to attract Asian bidding that night.
As ever, it is the hopes of substantial gain which drives this market. Attention is also directed at comparatively lesser-known artists like the late Blinky Palermo whose tall minimal abstract painting, Rot/Gelb, bought by Zwirner & Wirth in 1998 for $167,500, sold for a record $4.5 million dollars (a return rate of 71.5 per cent p.a).
In a similar vein, barely a handful of paintings by Japanese abstract artist Takeo Yamaguchi have appeared on the western market before, but a classic 1940s example came Sotheby’s way and it doubled the artist’s previous record selling for $950,000 – accentuating the revaluation that is taking place of post-war Asian art in general.
As the contemporary art market bounces back, it is digging into its history and global reach on a scale that earlier periods in art cannot.