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Feb. 2, 2009 

Who’s buying art today? Somebody! New York dealer Richard L. Feigen sold his J.M.W. Turner painting of Arcadian Greece, Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored (1814-16), for $12,962,500 (with premium) at Sotheby’s New York on Jan. 29, 2009. The "six-foot-wide painting of toga-clad revelers," as Bloomberg News so felicitously put it, went to an anonymous phone bidder. The hammer price -- $11,500,000 -- came in just under the low presale estimate of $12 million-$16 million.

The picture had been included in the huge Turner survey that was seen in three U.S. museums in 2007-08, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Dallas Museum of Art -- a fairly prestigious presale tour for a work going on the auction block. The 78-year-old Feigen, who sold the painting for estate planning purposes, bought the work in 1982 at Christie’s London for £648,000, or about $1.1 million. That’s an increase of 1,000 percent in 25 years. Is that good?

Old Masters in New York
Sotheby’s Old Master sales totaled $63.9 million, more than 20 percent below its presale low estimate, with 158 of 289 lots finding buyers, or under 55 percent. Prices given here include the buyers premium: 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the total between $50,000 and 41 million, and 12 percent of the rest.

In addition to the Turner, the top ten included Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s Bagpipe Player (1624) -- on view at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne since 1938, until it was restituted to the heirs of the original owner only last year -- which sold for a windfall $10,162,500, well above the presale high estimate of $6 million and a new record for the artist at auction.

The top ten also included a Canaletto, portraits by Goya and Titian, a François Boucher and two especially charming pictures: Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans, which sold for $1,762,500, and the early Renaissance painting of The Magus Hermogenes Casting his Magic Books into the Water by Lorenzo Monaco, which went for $1,426,500. The last is more than timely, as today’s financial wise men find that their rulebooks no longer apply. 

One big disappointment at the sale was the pair of exceptionally fresh portraits by Frans Hals, Man Holding a Pair of Gloves and Woman Holding a Handkerchief, which its owner, Belgian collector Eric Albada, offered together for a presale estimate of $15 million-$20 million. The lot failed to sell.

Christie’s New York sale of important Old Master paintings on Jan. 28 totaled $14,289,500, with 137 of 210 works finding buyers, or 65 percent. The top lot, Federico Barocci Urbino’s recently discovered Head of Saint John the Evangelist -- a definitely dynamic, rock-star oil on paper sketch measuring only 16 x 12 inches -- was bought by London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni for $1,762,500, substantially above the presale high estimate of $600,000.

The top ten includes fabulous works by J.M.W. Turner, Benjamin West (Cupid and Psyche), Pieter Brueghel the Younger (The Bird Trap), Anthony van Dyck and Jan Brueghel II, most selling within their presale estimates. For further details, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

Perhaps the Old Masters have a psychological advantage over other art-market sectors. It would go something like this: While the long-term value of contemporary art remains uncertain, however elevated, Old Masters represent a time-tested asset, and are a good place to put your money at a time like the present.

Cutbacks at the Auctioneers
The high prices at the top of the sales are misleading, however, and the auction houses are girding for a market that is down 20 to 50 percent. According to the New York Times, Sotheby’s laid off approximately 60 U.S. employees in December, while Christie’s has let 100 people go and begun to consolidate departments.

Sotheby’s total staff was in excess of 1,555 people, the paper said, and Christie’s had 2,100 employees. Further layoffs are to come. (In interviews with reporter Carol Vogel, the heads of both houses, Edward Dolman at Christie’s and William F. Ruprecht at Sotheby’s, denied that their firms were for sale.)

Contemporary sales in London
The cutbacks take a more literal shape at the forthcoming auctions of contemporary art in London, where the houses have trimmed the size of the sales by about 50 percent, with the average lot value, according to a calculation by Colin Gleadell in the Telegraph, falling from about $340,000 to $149,000.

Sotheby’s London is offering only 27 lots in its evening sale of contemporary art on Feb. 5, 2009, while Christie’s London is selling 31 lots six days later, on Feb. 11, 2009. Top lots include Francis Bacon’s Man in Blue VI (est. £4,000,000-£6,000,000) at Christie’s, a work being sold by the insurance conglomerate Aviva (reportedly because the chairman found the work depressing), and a gold Concetto Spaziale (est. £5,000,000-£7,000,000) by Lucio Fontana at Sotheby’s, a  painting that has been hidden away in a private collection for almost 50 years.

Insider sentiment is scornful of most of the lots. Price estimates have seen "significant readjustment," according to Gleadell, who reports that a Jenny Saville painting with a presale estimate of £300,000 at Christie’s was offered in 2007 at TEFAF Maastricht for £900,000, and that Mark Rothko painting on paper, sold in 2007 for $6 million, is back on the market with a presale estimate of £2.5 million ($3.6 million).

Yves Saint Laurent in Paris
The high-powered art market makes a relatively rare trip to Paris for the three-day auction of the Collections Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, which Christie’s Paris is holding at the Grand Palais on Feb. 23-25, 2009. The notably eclectic assemblage of 733 items -- from Impressionist and modern art to Old Masters, Art Deco furniture, Asian art and more -- comes straight from the two men’s apartments, and represents a truly impressive wealth of material.   

Choice modernist lots include a rare Pablo Picasso Synthetic Cubist still life (est. €25,000,000-€30,000,000, Constantin Brancusi’s carved wood Madame L.R. (est. €15,000,000-€20,000,000), which was originally owned by Fernand Léger,  and not one but three Piet Mondrian compositions, one in gray and the two others in color (both of the larger works are est. €7,000,000-€10,000,000). (€1 = $1.29).

Another highlight is a bottle of Marcel Duchamp’s perfume, La Belle Haleine - Eu de Voilette, complete with the portrait of Duchamp in drag as Rrose Sélavy by Man Ray. The presale estimate is €1,000,000-€1,500,000.

The total presale estimate is €200,000,000-€300,000,000, or $256,000,000-$384,000,000. Half of the auction proceeds go to the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, devoted to preserving Saint Laurent’s work, and the remainder to several charities and Bergé himself (Saint Laurent died in 2008 at age 71). 

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