Last week's contemporary-art sales confirmed that the steam has gone out of the art market, according to art experts, and more disappointing prices could emerge this week in sales of works from the estates of Henry Ford II and Greta Garbo.
The euphoria that once gripped auction rooms is gone amid fears of a U.S. recession.But if the market has fallen, it's far from dead, experts say. Speculators who didn't know Pissarro from Picasso may have departed, but serious collectors who know art and buy for the long term are bidding.
"What we are missing are the headline-grabbing situations that we had in the past couple of years," said William E. O'Reilly of Salander-O'Reilly Galleries Inc. "Now I think we have a more conservative buying public . . . whereas perhaps there was more of a festival mood about it before."
Sotheby's auction of postwar art last week was certainly no festival.
Fewer than half of the works offered - 34 out of 77 - were sold, the rest failing to reach the minimum price the sellers had in mind. And the total for the sale was $19.8 million, only half of the lowest pre-sale estimate by the auction house.
Christie's sale the following night was a bit more upbeat. Thirty of the 58 lots sold for a total of $36.7 million, against a pre-sale estimate by the auction house of $47.7 million to $65.4 million.
Willem de Kooning's "July," a large abstract canvas of fractured shapes and obscured colors painted in 1956, sold for $8.8 million, well above its high-end estimate of $7 million.
"The very top market usually sustains itself," said Bonnie Barrett Stretch, editor of the ARTnewsletter, a biweekly report on the international art market. "True masterpieces sustain prices through thick and thin."
That may not bode well for this week's sale of impressionist paintings since art experts agree that few outstanding works are up for sale. If sales are sluggish, they say, it will have more to do with the quality of the art than the state of the market.
The art collection of the late Henry Ford II will be auctioned on Monday at Sotheby's.