The Wholesale Collapse of the Art Market

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Only kidding. All the same, don’t look for big headlines from this week’s impressionist and modern art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Last November’s impressionist/modern sale at Christie’s was the richest art auction in history, bringing in $491 million. At the pre-sale viewing the galleries were thick with major canvases by Gauguin, Kirchner, Modigliani, Picasso. Even if you think of the current art market as a tragicomic episode in the history of shopping — I do — there was no denying that it was major work that was being squashed into merchandise last year. There’s a reason they talk about “bringing down the hammer”.

But at both houses the February auctions in New York tend to be more modest affairs. Last year Christie’s February sale brought in just about $2.3 million. Sotheby’s eked out just under $3.4 million. Having visited Christie’s Friday to catch the viewing for their Feb. 14 sale, I can tell you that this year will be no exception. There were some major names on the walls. Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne, Arp, Dali, etc. Nearly all of them were represented by minor work. Sketches, gouaches, studies, tiny watercolors. If you want a large canvas, you have your choice of lesser names — Marcel Gromaire, Andre Brasilier, etc. And lots of shrill, confectionary color. February auction viewings offer a rare chance to see work by painters like Jos Pauwels and Yvonne Canu, crucial figures in the transition between the School of Paris and the School of Wal Mart.

The story over at Sotheby’s, where the sale starts Feb. 15, is not very different. Among recognizable names they have a Modigliani drawing and two bronze reliefs by Renoir. But their major offering is a 1965 oil by Jean-Pierre Cassigneul — not exactly a staple of the art history books — with a high estimate of $70,000.

Don’t assume from any of this that the comically over heated art market is slowing down. The London auctions of post war and contemporary art set records again just last week. But those had nothing to do with Yvonne Canu.