Monet Marre Basse aux Petites

Inside the Art Market: An Empire of Expectations

“All the servants have gone from Polesden Lacey except for the housemaid, whom I have reengaged.  I met there Mr. Abbey of Christie’s who has completed the inventories of all the contents save the pictures.  I went round the rooms with Abbey who pronounced that there is hardly a piece of furniture of museum worth, the bulk of it being made up, or deliberate copies.  We ate sandwiches and drank tea in the servants hall after this depressing perambulation.”

This haunting tableau from the 1942 diaries of James Lees-Milne, recounting a visit to the great Edwardian house and estate of Polesden Lacey in Surrey, sums up brilliantly a recurring theme in the art world: expectations.  The house had been left by its owner, the great society hostess Mrs. Ronald Greville, to the National Trust, for whom Lees-Milne worked as a kind of scout and deal closer. Mrs. Greville had instructed her architects to create interiors for the house “suitable to entertain maharajahs.” But despite the jaw-dropping grandeur of Polesden Lacey the collection within still seemed lacking to Lees-Milne, and this greatly vexed and disappointed him.  He had expected so much more.

This theme of expectations, practically a mantra in the art market, came vividly to mind during the recent run of major spring paintings sales at the auction houses in New York.  While tradition has long held that the Impressionist and Modern Art sales take place one week each May in New York and the Contemporary Art sales a week after, both collecting fields this year were squeezed into a single, manic “giga-week” of auctions.  What this dizzying, three-ring circus implied, of course, is that one of these fields is slipping and no longer capable of carrying its own week of sales.

Well, that field is certainly not Contemporary art. Indeed, the global growth of Contemporary collecting in recent years has exploded into such a fiery spectacle of consumption that it seems to swamp all other fields in its wake.  Endless profiles in the trade journals and shelter magazines illustrate lavish interiors featuring works by the hottest, trendiest artists; and collectors are hailed as celebrities, the top contemporary dealers as avatars of taste and influence. Contemporary art has thus become an empire unto itself, and one with stratospheric expectations.  But what of Impressionist and Modern art?

As hopped-up, frenzied and shamelessly self-promotional as the Contemporary art market has become, Impressionist and Modern art by comparison seems sedated and dreamy-eyed, whimsical and remote, a brilliant relic of yesterday.  But it wasn’t that long ago that this regal field of collecting ruled the art world and commanded everyone’s attention.  It, too, was an empire unto itself.

Sixteen years ago, in May 1990, Sotheby’s and Christie’s were riding a tidal wave of success unprecedented in auction history. Most of this was fueled by a kind of tulip craze of speculative buying by the Japanese.  While a measure of caution lingered in the air from the so-called Black Monday financial market collapse of 1987, overall the mood of the day was euphoric and even smug, as prices of Impressionist and Modern paintings and sculpture just kept rising, with no end in sight.

It was a thrilling moment in the centuries-old history of the auction houses.  Even the shabby, warehouse-gloomy premises of Sotheby’s on York Avenue seemed to glow on the evening of May 17th that year from results like the astounding $78,100,000 achieved for Renoir’s glorious Au Moulin de la Galette from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney. The urbane Englishman David Nash, head of the Impressionist Department at Sotheby’s New York, stood near the rostrum in a tuxedo calmly savoring his sublime moment of triumph, looking every bit the art world rock star. Next to him in a stylish black dress stood the formidable, imperious Diana D. Brooks, the CEO of Sotheby’s and arguably the most powerful woman in the art world at the time.

But how suddenly it all ended.

The Japanese fled the art market that fall, and a kind of nuclear winter set in for the auction houses as their sales of Impressionist and Modern art plummeted.  A thin ray of sunshine appeared in the sky as both houses continued to enjoy during this gloomy period a steady turnover in fields such as furniture and decorations, jewelry and collectibles.  But it would take years for the Impressionist and Modern art departments at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s to rebuild from the ruins of Autumn 1990.  As the financial markets grew globally and a new wave of wealthy collectors emerged worldwide, the emphasis shifted from Impressionist to Contemporary art; and the popularity gap between these two collecting fields started to widen.  Great Impressionist and Modern works would still appear on the market from year to year, but the glory days were over.

In due course David Nash departed Sotheby’s to become a dealer; Dede Brooks was consumed by the great auction house collusion scandal and was never seen again; and the Contemporary empire commenced growing at breathtaking speed.  While talking about art as an investment might have seemed vulgar in the past, now it was fashionable and clever.  One wished to know the investment rate of return on, say, an Abstraktes Bild painting by Gerhard Richter of 1994 since its purchase four years previously.

Thus it was a moment of sentimental pleasure to witness a spectacular seascape of the Normandy coast by Claude Monet being offered in this May’s Impressionist sale at Sotheby’s. The painting, Marée basse aux Petites-Dalles (1884), loomed in the saleroom as one of those glorious warhorses from another era of collecting, something the Japanese would have snapped up in May 1990 amidst vigorous competitive bidding.  But whereas all the expectations of success today seem to lie mainly in the Contemporary field, with double or triple the high estimate a not-uncommon expectation, with an old-fashioned painting like this Monet the modest hope would be that it sells, and hopefully near the high end of the estimate range. How wonderful then to see it double its high estimate in achieving $9.9 million, attributable no doubt to the painting’s freshness to the market and fine provenance.

Perhaps the decline of the Impressionist art market was inevitable. It is simply not brash and brutish enough for the modern world, not flashy and shocking, its subject matter too elegant and refined and subtle. As such, it is a glorious haven from the clamorous and increasingly unctuous Contemporary art market, a market where expectations are unconstrained, limitless.

-Ronald Varney

(Image: Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Claude Monet, Marée basse aux Petites-Dalles)