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Londonís new art boom

(Reuters) / 22 June 2012

Londonís art market is attracting the lionís share of business from an emerging class of super-wealthy collectors hailing from Russia, the Middle East and China, and they are likely to be a big factor in a summer season of sales valued at up to $1 billion.

Christie’s, Sotheby’s and smaller rivals like Phillips de Pury hold a three-week series of auctions featuring works by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Renoir and Gerhard Richter.

Euro zone turmoil and slowing Chinese economic growth are giving investors the jitters, yet the high-end art market has defied gravity on a record-breaking streak.

New York has long been considered the global capital of the auction world — most recent records have been set there, including the $120 million paid for Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ at a Sotheby’s sale in May.

London, a more natural fit for Russian tycoons who have homes in the city and Middle Eastern buyers just a mid-haul flight away, may be closing that gap.

Sotheby’s has calculated that, while the number of lots sold to buyers from “new” markets has risen in both cities so far this year, the increase has been far more marked in London (33 per cent) than New York (six per cent).

“Particularly the Russians feel very comfortable bidding in the London sales as many of them have second homes and are very active here,” said Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art department in Europe.

“I think that because of our geographic situation, we are the gateway to the East... Central Asia, the Middle East and the East,” she said. “We definitely see that in the sales of recent years. It is a growing trend.”

One of the prize lots of the season is English artist John Constable’s ‘The Lock’, being offered by Christie’s for 20-25 million pounds ($30-40 million) and the only one of a series of six important landscapes by the painter to be in private hands. It goes under the hammer on July 3 and should eclipse the 10.8 million pounds raised when it was sold in 1990 — a British painting record it held for 16 years.

On the same night, Rembrandt’s ‘A Man in a Gorget and Cap’ is on course to raise 8-12 million pounds.

Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house, expects to raise at least 310 million pounds from its sales of impressionist, modern, contemporary art as well as those of British paintings and Old Masters.

The upper estimate is closer to 500 million pounds, and combined with Sotheby’s low target of 210 million pounds, a billion-dollar art bonanza looks within reach.

At Sotheby’s, the top work of the season could be Joan Miro’s ‘Peinture’ (Etoile Bleue), valued at 15-20 million pounds and in sight of the artist record set this year of 16.8 million.

Soaring prices for coveted works of art at a time of global economic uncertainty have long prompted warnings of a sharp correction and even collapse, but time and again in the last three years the market has defied the gloomiest predictions.

Institutional acquisitions have also played a key role in the recovery, with Qatar emerging as one of the biggest buyers of art in recent years as it fills a growing network of museums.


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