At Sotheby's in New York last week, the cover lot in this season's Impressionist and modern art evening auction was something of a novelty. Young Arab by Kees Van Dongen (1910) is an Egyptian figure in a style reminiscent of Henri Matisse's fauve and North African works, nothing like Van Dongen's signature pictures of gaudy women. Its asking price of $7 million to $10 million (Dh25.7m to Dh36.7m), was also a novelty for this artist.
The painting sold over the telephone for $13.8m, setting a record for a work by the artist at auction and defying what was thought to be a persistent torpor in the auction market. Sotheby's sold 56 of the 66 works offered at the auction. The sale totalled nearly $182m, surpassing the auction house's high estimate of $163m. As auction records for two artists were achieved, sceptics were forced to reconsider dark forecasts for the art trade.
Is the recession over, as far as the art market is concerned? It would be premature to declare the sick patient cured, but the signs at Sotheby's pointed to a recovery. Across town at its auction rival, Christie's International, the signs were more discouraging. Just one night earlier, November 3, a considerably smaller sale of 40 lots - 26 fewer than at Sotheby's - brought $65.7m. Twelve of those lots went unsold.
The Christie's sale focused on the kind of pretty and classic work that might weather a general recession. The auction's top lot was Danseuses by Edgar Degas from 1896, which brought $10.7m including the buyer's commission. Industry insiders assume that the painting found an Asian buyer, since the phone bid for it was made through the deputy chairman of Christie's in Asia. The demand for this kind of picture was assumed to come from China, where collectors have had fewer chances to buy Impressionist works.
Also selling at Christie's were a cast of Le Baiser (The Kiss) by Auguste Rodin, which brought $6.3m, and Claude Monet's 1901 village landscape, Vétheuil, effet de soleil, which fetched $5.4m. Still, paintings by Pissarro and Matisse went unsold at Christie's, and specialists explained soberly that tough economic times meant that fewer desirable works of art were available to fill major sales by both Christie's and Sotheby's.
Yet at Sotheby's, the strong and confident bidding seemed indiscriminate. The sale started with Salvador Dali's surrealist Giraffe on Fire, a gouache and charcoal work on paper. Sotheby's staffers who took telephone bids gesticulated wildly for attention like commodities traders on a hectic day. The picture brought $1.8m, with premium, more than 10 times its low estimate, setting the tone for the evening.
"We put together a sale carefully, that reflects the market as we know it," said Simon Shaw, the head of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art department in New York. Shaw noted that estimates for the same works would have been much higher in 2006, the last year that a Sotheby's evening sale exceeded the firm's high estimates. "This is the first season where people totally understood the economy and our estimates," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, who was the evening's auctioneer. "Did we have to estimate things conservatively? There's no question."
One lot's estimate seemed high for difficult economic times. Sotheby's valued Andre Derain's 1905 fauve harbour scene, Barques au Port de Collioure, at $6m to $8m. Yet bidding took the price to just over $14m. The successful bidder turned out to be Guy Bennett, the former head of Christie's Impressionist and modern art department in New York. After the sale, a contented Bennett declined to discuss the painting or disclose for whom he had bid.
Specialists at Sotheby's were delighted that a former rival had helped fuel the evening's buying energy. "Some of our best clients turn out to be specialists who used to work for the competition," said David Norman, Sotheby's executive vice president and co-chairman, who noted that the absence of aggressive competition and guarantees for most of the evening's lots had kept costs down. "People are looking for comfort," said one dealer watching the sale led by Alberto Giacometti's unsettling existentialist sculpture l'Homme Qui Chavire (Falling Man), which brought a sense of irony to the evening as bids rose to more than $19m. Cast in 1951, the delicate figure embodied uncertainty in the wake of the Second World War. In New York, it dispelled unease among buyers who may still be at a loss to explain why the market is bouncing back.