On the evening of 4 May at Christie’s in New York, a previously unknown, seminal sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, probably the first of his admired ‘Bird in Space’ series produced around 1922–23, was expected to fetch a mighty $8 million– $12 million. In the event, there were at least six serious contenders for the piece, and one of them was prepared to pay $27.4 million to capture the sleek, grey-blue marble bird. Unsurprisingly, ‘Oiseau dans l’espace’ set a new auction record for the artist. It also became the most expensive sculpture sold at auction.
What does that reveal about the current art market? That blue-chip modern and contemporary art is still the hottest of properties? That the opportunities to find exceptional pieces of any art are so rare that the world’s richest collectors are prepared to pay any price? Certainly. But the sale will probably also have the effect of hastening the dawning realisation that the prices being realised now for modern and contemporary art make old art look glaringly, ludicrously cheap.
Intriguingly, the past few years have seen increasing numbers of contemporary art collectors, dealers as well as artists themselves, dipping their toes into other markets. Of course there have always been artists who have collected the art of the past — and in recent decades the distinguished collections of Georg Baselitz (Old Master Mannerist prints) and of the Chicago dealer Richard Gray (Old Master drawings) immediately spring to mind. What is new is the range and breadth of this buying — though do not for a moment imagine that any self-respecting collector of contemporary art is suddenly going to start buying porcelain shepherdesses or 19th-century paintings of cardinals. What is appealing to these collectors is work with a comparable aesthetic; work that has a formal, linear simplicity but also a powerful presence. It is often drawings or sculpture.
To some extent this shift in buying is a result of the needs-must determination of the auction houses and dealers to attract a new — and younger — clientele. To tie in with the Old Master drawings sales in New York in January, for instance, Katrin Bellinger of London dealers Colnaghi arranged a collaborative show with the Manhattan modern and contemporary dealer Michael Werner. A third of her drawings were sold to new clients who were contemporary art buyers. They all said more or less the same thing: they could not believe that such drawings were still available on the art market, and they could not believe how relatively inexpensive they were.
For their part, the auction houses have never worked so hard to find the traditionally all too elusive ‘crossover’ buyer. In their special viewing rooms, the inner sanctums where the choicest pieces are shown privately to their best clients, a whole range of works of art are now on view, and the back pages of every auction catalogue are stuffed with ads for forthcoming sales in different disciplines. It may well be that that was how Christie’s London found the winning bidder for its rare Juan Sanchez Cotan still life of around 1600 last December. With its almost monochrome palette and a striking, spare simplicity, it appealed very much to today’s taste, and indeed sold to a contemporary collector who had never seen the original but was still prepared to pay more than twice the estimate — over £4 million — to secure it.
A more powerful driving force, inevitably, is fashion and the taste for what could be described as the New Eclecticism. Instead of assembling collections of works of art of a particular medium or culture, collectors now tend towards a minimalist less-is-more approach, buying fewer but higher-quality works of art, and single iconic pieces (if they can afford them) that at the very least can hold their own in a room. An early exponent of combining contemporary with tribal art, antiquities and some Old Masters was the critic and passionate collector David Sylvester. And it is no coincidence that one of the world’s most influential taste-makers, the decorator-cum-antique dealer Axel Vervoordt, has similarly evolved a Zen-inspired house style that juxtaposes resonant pieces of contemporary art with tribal and antiquities — Egyptian, Roman and Chinese.
The London mediaeval art dealer Sam Fogg has found a hungry new market in a younger generation of buyers with a taste for mediaeval sculpture. Not the small, exquisite and perfect (or restored) pieces their fathers or grandfathers might have admired, but large, dramatic, often fragmentary pieces of free-standing sculpture with a primitive, stylised or even abstract quality that complements modern and contemporary art (Modigliani, Brancusi and Picasso, after all, found inspiration in the art of the past). Fogg cites an early 14th-century Beauvais stone figure of St James which, rather like an antiquity, had its head and an arm missing, losses which only served to emphasise the beauty of the carving. Everyone wanted it, he says. Until a few years ago, mediaeval stone sculpture had been all but unsaleable.
As for antiquities proper, London-based Rupert Wace reported the sale of around a dozen pieces at the Winter Antiques Show in New York in January to collectors of contemporary art. At Maastricht in March, he sold about half a dozen. Cycladic figures from his current catalogue — ‘Eternal Woman: the Female Form in Antiquity’ — have already been reserved. His clients include London dealer Kasmin and Tim Hunt, a curator of the Andy Warhol Foundation. The decorators began buying three years ago; this latest batch of contemporary collectors, two. For Wace, who believes that the antiquities market has been in the doldrums for the past 25 years, these are encouraging times.
Whether this tentative, perhaps modish, buying will have any profound effect on the market is unclear. Certainly, while contemporary art prices continue to soar and so-called collectors speculate as if works of art were hedge-fund commodities — there was nothing much in last week’s evening sales in New York for under $1 million — enthusiasts may well think of casting their net wider. Anyone bidding on the $27.4 million Brancusi — or the $8.4 million Giacometti ‘Femme Leoni’ in the same sale — might look at, say, the little Giambologna wax model of a seated woman representing Astrology which belonged to the connoisseur-collector Sir Brinsley Ford and is now being offered at Christie’s London on 7 July. The sculpture equivalent of a first sketch, this model, literally, bears the thumbprint of genius. Can it really be worth just £150,000–£200,000, around a 100th of the price of a Brancusi?