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02 December 2023

How records broke the art world

Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri stands in front of his work, Love Letter, which fetched $1.05m at the Bonhams auction in Dubai. (AFP)

By Scott Reyburn and Katya Kazakina

Setting new records in the art world was the name of the game in 2008, when prices extended a seven-year surge.

A $162 million (Dh594.5m) sale of Damien Hirst works in September last year featured pickled unicorns and a golden calf with 18-carat hooves and horns.

From 2003 to 2007, worldwide auction sales of contemporary art grew more than eightfold, said the French-based database Artprice. The Hirst sale coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings and the rise in auction prices then came to halt, said dealers.

"The mood has changed," said Anders Petterson, Founder and Managing Director of the London-based art market research company ArtTactic. "The magnitude of the economic crisis is such that even the ultra-rich have second thoughts when buying things."


With the art market still on a high, Iran's Farhad Moshiri became the first Middle Eastern artist to sell at auction for $1 million on March 3. Eshgh (Love Letter) fetched $1.05m with fees at Bonhams' first auction in Dubai. The Swarovski-crystal-encrusted canvas had been expected to fetch up to $200,000.

Bonhams' sale of Middle-Eastern contemporary art fetched $13m, twice the estimate, with 94 per cent of the lots successful. Three days before the auction, the benchmark price of crude oil had closed above $102 per barrel for the first time.

When Bonhams held its second sale of Middle Eastern art on November 24, the price of crude oil had almost halved. This time the auction total was $2.9m, with only 44 per cent of the works finding buyers.


Bloodline: The Big Family No 3 painting by Chinese market star Zhang Xiaogang fetched $6.1m with fees at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 9, setting a record for the artist.

The work was part of the Estella Collection sold by New York art dealer William Acquavella, who was putting it on the block eight months after acquiring it from an investment group.

The two-part Estella Collection sale tracked the financial markets as they went from boom to bust.

Chinese contemporary-art prices had shot up nearly 15 times in four years, largely on speculative trading. As liquidity dried up later in 2008, scores of artworks went unsold.

The first part of the Estella sale, valued at as much as $12m, fetched about $18m with 98 of the 108 artworks sold. In the second part, coinciding with the Lehman bankruptcy, only 64 per cent of lots found buyers.


Lucian Freud's 1995 portrait of the 280-pound civil servant Sue Tilley, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, became the most expensive work by a living artist sold at an auction, fetching $33.6m at Christie's International in New York on May 13.


On May 14, Bacon's Triptych, 1976 sold for $86.3m at Sotheby's New York, supplanting Mark Rothko's 1950 canvas White Center as the most expensive contemporary artwork sold at auction.

The Bacon paintings (and Christie's $33.6m Freud) were purchased by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea Football Club in the United Kingdom, dealers said. The Bacon work led Sotheby's $362m sale, its biggest ever, during which 18 records were set for artists.


In June, a series of Impressionist sales in London, led by the Monet painting, gave indications the mood in the market was about to change.

Christie's auction on June 24 fetched £144.4m with fees, the highest-ever total for a European art sale.

Monet's 1919 Le Bassin aux Nympheas topped the evening with a record £40.9m (Dh220m). The six-foot, seven-inch-wide canvas was bought in the room by the London-based art adviser Tania Buckrell Pos, who has Russian collectors among her clients.


Sotheby's September 15-16 Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale of new works by Hirst represented the peak of the contemporary-art market, according to a survey published in October.

The 223-lot auction – beginning the day Lehman filed for bankruptcy – totaled £111.5m with fees against an estimate of £98m, based on hammer prices.

The Golden Calf, a formaldehyde piece featuring a Charolais bull calf embellished with precious metal horns and hooves, set a record price for the artist of £10.3m. Ninety-eight per cent of the works sold, said Sotheby's.

In November, the ftalphaville.ft.com blog said that Sotheby's Hirst auction had "run into trouble" and that up to three-quarters of the agreed sales had failed.

On December 10, the auction house responded with an e-mailed statement: "Sotheby's has not encountered any payment problems with buyers for lots in the Hirst sale and no purchaser has asked Sotheby's to re-offer any lots."

When asked to respond to dealers' suggestions that buyers had been given up to 12 months to pay their bills, Matthew Weigman, Sotheby's London-based head of public relations, said in an interview that the payment terms at the Hirst auction were no different from those printed in the catalogue.

It said the auction house may, in limited circumstances, offer buyers it deems creditworthy "the option of paying for their purchases on an extended payment term basis". The catalogue doesn't specify any time limit.

"If bills aren't due to be paid for six months, then there's no problem with payment at the moment, is there?" said London art dealer Offer Waterman.