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Sotheby's $180 million take buoys hope for contemporary art market

By Chris Kokenes, CNN
  • Sotheby's reported total sales of $181.8 million on Wednesday night
  • Five works that sold for more than $10 million
  • Publisher: Weaker dollar, inflation driving many to art as an asset class
  • Christie's raked in $65 million this week, and rare post-war pieces are on the block next week

New York (CNN) -- A recent sale of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's auction house exceeded sales estimates and raised the hopes of industry insiders that a rebound is under way.

Sotheby's reported total sales of $181.8 million on Wednesday night and featured five works that sold for more than $10 million. The auction house initially thought it would take in $115.3 million.

"Wonderful" said Emmanuel Di Donna, who is Sotheby's vice chairman for Impressionist and modern art worldwide, director of evening sales.

A veteran of Sotheby's for 15 years, Di Donna oversaw the evening sales which included 66 lots, or pieces of work.

More than 800 attendees went to the highly anticipated auction and 70 bidders were on the phone from all over the world. The two-hour session got off to a breathtaking start when it began.

The vibe of the room was "electric" said Di Donna. "There was pent-up demand from the start of the first lot, which featured Salvador Dali's "Giraffe on Fire."

The Dali work, which was expected to bring $150,000 to $200,000, eventually sold for $1.87 million.

Other artworks that exceeded estimates included Andre Derain's "Barques au Port de Collioure," which brought $14.08 million, and Kess van Donen's "Jeune Arabe," which sold for $13.8 million.

Sotheby's recorded sales of 93.4 percent of the total lots when they typically sell 70 to 90 percent. More than 64 percent of the lots sold above estimates on Wednesday.

The successful night's take was a breath of fresh air for buyers and sellers, who all seemed to be sitting on the sidelines for several months waiting for something to happen.

"I predicted a year ago that contemporary art sales would rebound", said John Smiroldo, publisher and founder of Antiques and Fine Art magazine.

"There was an enormous amount of money standing on the sidelines and people are now putting it into less risky investments" added Smiroldo. "It's a good thing for the market. What has happened is it made people think they can get good value for artists that stand the test of time. It was a great auction of blue-chip artists.

"With the dollar weakening and inflation soon to hit consumers there's a flight to blue-chip artists and many are turning art into an asset class," Smiroldo said.

Art in America magazine editor Marcia Vetrocq also agrees that the results from Sotheby's made sellers happy. "And given the current economic climate there's no way that this couldn't be a sigh of relief on the part of those in the industry."

There's a flight to blue-chip artists and many are turning art into an asset class.
--John Smiroldo, publisher and founder of Antiques and Fine Art magazine

Vetrocq attributed Sotheby's recent success to a careful pruning of works and their calculations of estimates. Of the 66 lots that were auctioned, 39 came from a single collection which people have been "panting for," she said. "The release of these works was a cause of celebration" said Vetrocq.

But while Vetrocq was ecstatic with the results she is also optimistically cautious about the future. "People who follow this as an economic indicator will become encouraged but the real test is next week when the post war art goes on sale." said Vetrocq.

Cross-town rival Christie's declined to comment on Sotheby's huge night, but that auction house also had a good evening Tuesday, recording expected sales of just over $65 million of Impressionist and modern art.

"This remains a buoyant market for the freshest and finest works of Impressionist and modern art, as we witnessed Tuesday evening with the extraordinary results achieved for Rodin's "The Kiss" and for Edgar Degas' "Danseuses," said Christie's spokesperson Toby Usnik.

Usnik said the auction house also anticipates good results next week in "major sales of post-war and contemporary art," including important works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Can the market for high-end art be sustained? While it's a good time to buy, Smiroldo cautioned, it's won't to be the like the good market days of the last five years. "We're going to see a steady, controlled rise in values."