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Aug. 6, 2010 

Go to a gallery district and you get the sense that the art market is still a little shell-shocked. As a rule, art dealers are enjoying only modest sales, though most established galleries have artists with a steady following keeping them afloat.

Sotheby’s first half
Listen to the auction houses, however, and the picture seems to be rosy. Sotheby’s, which is publicly traded, has announced its results for the first half of 2010, and pronounced “strong sales around the world.” Total aggregate auction sales for the period were $2.2 billion, an increase of 116 percent compared to 2009.

A substantial part of the increase came in Impressionist and contemporary art, which went up by 188 percent, or $684 million.

Sotheby’s auction revenues for the period rose from $221.7 million to $383.2 million, a jump of $164.4 million, or 85 percent.

And the firm’s net income for the period was $84.1 million -- the highest in the company’s history, up from a net loss of $22.3 million in the first half of 2009.

Sotheby’s London had the momentum in June 2010, with high prices for works by André Derain ($24 million), Henri Matisse ($17.4 million) and Yves Klein ($9.3 million). In all, Sotheby’s sold 273 lots for $1 million or more. Private sales totaled $209 million, up six percent from 2009.

Christie’s first half
Christie’s also announced its half-year figures for 2009, claiming the lead position in the global art market with worldwide sales of $2.57 billion for the first half of 2010. Christie’s is privately held, and so does not break out its financial results in quite the same detail as Sotheby’s.

Christie’s does boast, however, of sales of 169 works for over $1 million (rather fewer than Sotheby’s, see above), and notes that it sold 75 percent of the works that were hammered down for over $50 million during the period, including the record-setting $106.5 million Pablo Picasso painting, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.

Christie’s reckons it has 51 percent of global market share compared to Sotheby’s. Noting the growing role of Asia in the art market, Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman said, “Great works continue to inspire and prices demonstrate a sustained commitment to art as a store of value.”

Auction records, July 2010
About 60 artworks sold for new records in excess of $100,000 in July of 2010, largely at the Old Master sales in London. This total is only a handful more than the number achieved in July 2009, when the economic downturn was much fresher. Go figure.

The top lots have already been reported in these pages by Paul Jeromack, and they include works by J.M.W. Turner ($45 million) and Georg Pencz ($8.5 million).

But a delightful array of other pictures also sold for new records. Considering the rather thin “float” in the Old Master market, it’s hard to know what these prices might mean.

Guercino’s stiffly balletic portrait of King David (1651) holding a stone slab inscribed with a psalm fortelling the coming of the Messiah sold at Christie’s London for a record price of $7.9 million, within its presale estimate but rather more than the previous record of $2.4 million. Said to be an important late work in excellent condition, the painting was being sold by the aristocratic Spencer Family of Princess Diana fame. Provenance.

Other record-setting lots included a somber and classical Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini at Christie’s ($5.3 million) and a romantic scene of daybreak over The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo by John Robert Cozens ($3.6 million).

Other new records were set for Hendrick Terbrugghen ($1.9 million), Philips Wouwerman ($1.8 million), Andrea del Verrocchio ($1.2 million) and Salvator Rosa ($1.2 million). A new auction record was also set for the Zero Group artist Heinz Mack, whose Dynamische Strukture sold at a Christie’s London day sale for $363,000.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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