Slim Pickin’s in Lean Times = $69 Mil for the Big Mo

Modigliani’s “La belle Romaine” is large.

No use talking about the art market as if it had ANYthing to do with the real world… Auction prices are back to mind-blowing even while our unemployment rates hover around 9%. An examination of performances by Sotheby’s and Christie’s  evening sales of contemporary art this week will show you only that a luxury market —a collectors luxury market — responds to a slowly recovering economy with sheer, unabashed, indulgence.

The story these days is about rarity. And rarity speaks only to desire and competition, a combo that makes for dramatic auctions. So when every last brushstroke and cast is sitting on Mr. Moneyfeather’s veranda, and collectors are left scrabbling over the leavings or the occasional toss-away, we are left gasping at record prices fetched for middling Modiglianis and lackluster Monets.

Sotheby’s seemed to take advantage of a growing sense of scarcity in the contemporary art market, this week, mixing outright duds with higher quality works and fetching brilliant prices for almost all of them.

Modigliani’s “La belle Romaine” is large. And the larger Modiglianis are rare at auction these days. So it was fought over and won for a whopping $69 million, half again the high estimate.

“Water Lillies” are scarce these days. Monet did a number of “Nymphéas” but the best have found homes and will be out of the market for a long time. So when Sotheby’s dug up a sad, neglected and unfinished “Bassin aux Nymphéas” it went for $24.72 million.

Even Matisse’s “Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier” which had been only made her way out of Sotheby’s door after selling in 2007 for $21.75 was not looked at askance: the gavel went down just short of the previous selling price, demonstrating the fact that even a fast turn-around can’t make a Matisse look bad right now.

Matisse's Back IV

Christie’s also benefited this week from bidders who have become desperate for big names and snippets of art history.

An ersatz Matisse bronze, “Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV)” cast from a 1930’s Matisse model after his death, and produced as a series of 12 in 1978, went, despite its second-hand lineage, for $48.8 million.

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