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Art values are booming as New York auctions make billions...

Angela Weiss

by
Robert Griffiths

The market for high-end art appears to be booming, with a series of high-value auctions in New York taking Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips total sales to more than $2.5 billion for 2022 already.

Auctions this month alone have included:

  • A 1964 Andy Warhol portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe, "Shot Sage Blue Marilyn," sold at Christie's for $195 million, now the highest auction price for a 20th-century work.
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat's "16ft Untitled (Devil)," sold at Phillips for $85 million — up from $57.3 million at an auction in 2016.
  • Pablo Picasso's 1932 "Femme nue couchée," sold at Sotheby's for $67.5 million
  • Two works by Mark Rothko, sold at Christie's for $116.4 million.
  • A trio of Claude Monet paintings sold at Christie's for $168.7 million

Vendors at the Phillips auction were so confident of selling their pieces that about half as many as last year took the auction house's offer to guarantee a minimum price. Robert Manley, Phillips deputy chairman, told ARTnews that this faith in the market was "astonishing," and showed the strength of the sector.

London art dealer Patrick Bourne noted that female artists in particular seemed to be doing well this year, with recent sales of women's works at Sotheby's selling for "sometimes to 10 times the estimate."

Bendor Grovesnor, a British art historian and former art dealer, suggests the high volume of sales shows that wealthy individuals see art as a "longer term hedge as an asset" during economic uncertainty. Buyers need to be confident the market is rising before making expensive purchases, as auction houses take large cuts of deals.

"If you're worried about inflation and stock market volatility, then a blue-chip bankable name painting or sculpture can be something that investors see as a safer bet," he says, adding that the healthy prices are particularly impressive given the quantity of art on the market.

"Normally if you were seeing things soar away, you might say it's a reflection of constrained supply, but actually that's definitely not the case," says Grovesnor.

The current surge in sales follows an earlier "mini-boom" in the high end art market during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"There was definitely a moment where basically bored rich people were transferring the money that they would normally spend on services to stuff," says Grovesnor. During that period, the art market and top auction houses were able to continue their business fairly seamlessly online.

However the latest surge appears to be something new, he says, and may also connected to a steep fall in the value of some cryptocurrencies and their related digital art, known as Non-Fungible-Tokens, in recent weeks.

"It seemed there was a risk that traditional art lovers might find themselves eclipsed by crypto-art and NFTs, but that doesn't look like it's taken off," Grosvenor says. "So the primacy of the painting on canvas is with us still."

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