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Money talk

26 November 2011

12:00 PM

26 November 2011

12:00 PM

At least one market posted strong results in November. That was the market for contemporary art. In just four days in New York — 7 to 10 November — a phenomenal $775 million was spent on postwar and contemporary art at auction alone (who knows what deals were transacted privately). Sotheby’s evening sale exceeded its expectations by more than $45 million. Here, a real market rarity, a magnificent painting by the American Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still, fetched a mighty $61.7 million. Some 45 works sold for over $1 million; seven sold for more than $10 million. Good news, one might say — but only up to a point.

It is a sign of the times that the flow of funds that has been diverted into the contemporary art market over the past two decades has turned into a flood. What was once — in commercial terms — a relative backwater has become the chosen vehicle for global financial speculation. Why contemporary art in particular? The reason is simple: the universal language of the international avant-garde makes it a globally marketable asset. Moreover, it is the only art market where there is no shortage of supply; indeed, this roaring bear of a market has attracted more and more artists as well as buyers.

That said, one of its peculiarities is that most of the money chases a gilded few. And while a growing divergence in prices between the best and the rest is evident throughout the entire art market, in the case of contemporary art, of course, history has yet to relate what the ‘best’ might be.

There are all manner of quantifiers used by this market’s speculators— rankings, indexes and auction prices themselves — to indicate artistic quality except, one sometimes suspects, an understanding of what is artistic quality. All you ever hear at these sales is talk about money.

How pleasing it was to be reminded that this was not the only — or the real — art market. At the congenial new Paris Tableau, a specialist fair for Old Master paintings, 4–8 November, the Palais de la Bourse was full of people who seemed to be genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about what they were looking at. Some were even buying — from seasoned collectors to the young couple who had acquired their third serious painting. On offer was a wide range of appealing material, including new discoveries fresh to the market.

Saleroom correspondents inevitably focus on thrilling new discoveries — such as the Velázquez portrait offered by Bonhams in London on 7 December (estimate £2 million–£3 million) — as much as on tumbling auction records and soaring sales totals. We are rather less good at mentioning what else is out there in the wilderness of unfashionable good taste that could afford real pleasure to people without a fortune to play with. It seemed time to consider what one can buy these days for less than £100,000, £10,000 or even £1,000. The pre-Christmas auctions present a typical offering.

Sculpture remains hugely undervalued in comparison with painting, although in the modern and contemporary field prices are fast catching up. One tour-de-force piece that could perhaps be yours for £100,000 is offered at Sotheby’s 6 December sale. Described as one of the most important wood sculptures to come on to the market for a long time, it is an almost life-size and partially polychromed early 16th-century St John the Baptist, attributed to the Master of the Harburger Altar. It only comes to auction as a result of its recent restitution to the heirs of Jacob and Rosa Oppenheimer. Crafted in limewood, which allows for exceptionally crisply carved detail, the figure exhibits the vigour and virtuosity of the best of south German

There can be few categories of collecting less fashionable than portrait miniatures. Good news, then, for the potential buyers of the unfinished portrait of Shakespeare’s patron — some have argued lover — Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, offered at Christie’s on 29 November. Sadly, it does not come with an estimate of £10,000 but £15,000–£25,000 — but it was too intriguing not to include.

It appears to be what has been described as a ‘pattern’ portrait, a sketch, as it were, made in one sitting that would stay in the studio and serve as a likeness for future portraits. The artist — the much admired ‘limner’ Isaac Oliver, pupil of Nicholas Hilliard — has given us a hint of the smile of the man who famously seduced the Virgin Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Vernon, but has chosen to focus on his subject’s clear-blue eyes and wonderfully preposterous hair. The miniature was on loan to the V&A for nearly 40 years. A comparable unfinished portrait by Isaac Oliver of Southampton’s close friend and ally, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, is in the Yale Center for British Art.

Lastly, I raise several glasses to the American A.C. Hubbard Jr, a wine collector who realised that he might also become a wine-glass collector after seeing the 18th-century glass at Mompesson House in Salisbury in 1986. He subsequently amassed a handsome collection of some 282 specimens of English and Dutch late 17th- and 18th-century drinking glasses, under the gavel at Bonhams on 30 November. Apart from the greatest rarities, there are plenty of delectable specimens with estimates of around £1,000 — from the pure, sculptural forms of late 17th-century façon de Venise wine glasses or early 18th-century baluster glasses to pretty engraved Jacobite goblets sitting on knopped and airtwist spiral stems.

This sample might just as easily have included prints, porcelain, illuminated miniatures, Old Master or modern drawings, tribal art or antiquities (the lion’s share of Charles Ede’s Christmas exhibition, for instance, is priced under £1,000). The rewards of collecting, of looking at, learning about and living with beautiful or interesting objects, are very real — and they do not have to include turning a profit.

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