Thursday, December 22, 2005

Most Expensive Art 2005 - a Connoisseur's Guide (by Leah Hoffman, Forbes)

Note of the painting: at the 4th place: (TIE) "Homage to Matisse", Mark Rothko, 1954 , Price: $22.4 million, Date Of Sale: Nov. 8, 2005, House: Christie's New York.

See the slide show of the most expensive art sold at auction in 2005 (

Note from the blog editor:
For some of you who does not know me enough, I would find any excuse to put up an art work by Mark Rothko.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's should have plenty to toast this holiday season. The two auction houses--which together control some 95% of worldwide fine-art auction sales--enjoyed strong years in 2005, with record-shattering prices and robust overall sales. While the 2005 auction year saw no single sale as spectacular as 2004's $104 million Picasso (the first painting ever to crack the $100 million threshold), there were plenty of strong pieces on the market.

Christie's sold an estimated $759 million in its major fine-arts auctions in the New York market alone, up from $735 million the previous year. Though Sotheby's (nyse: BID - news - people ) no longer breaks down its annual sales by category, the results of its major auctions throughout the year suggest that the art market continued to be profitable in 2005. London's February Impressionist and modern art sales, for example, brought in $103.8 million, up 37% from last year's sale.

"It's been a stellar year across the board," said Bendetta Roux, a spokesperson for Christie's in New York.

What pieces had collectors panting? To find out, we turned to Cambridge, Mass.-based art research firm ArtFact to track down the most expensive fine art and sculpture that sold at auction in 2005.

The most expensive painting sold last year, 17th-century Venetian master Canaletto's "Venice, the Grand Canal, Looking Northeast from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge," brought in a whopping $32.6 million. The painting--once owned by Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister--was bought on July 7 by an anonymous telephone buyer at a Sotheby's auction in London. It was the highest recorded price paid at auction for a work by Canaletto, besting a record that had been set the previous day by a work sold at a Christie's New York auction. "The Bucintoro at the Molo, Venice, on Ascension Day" sold on July 6 for $20.1 million, and it remains the sixth most expensive piece sold at auction in 2005.

Indeed, many artists enjoyed record-breaking sales this year. The November sale of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "La blanchisseuse (The Laundress)" for $22.4 million was a record for the artist, as was Mark Rothko's "Homage to Matisse," which sold for the same amount. Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi's "Oiseau dans l'espace (Bird in Space)," which sold for $27.5 million to an anonymous buyer in May, set sales records both for the artist's own work and for any sculpture ever sold at auction.

And what's fueling all of these sales? David Norman, director of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's, points to an ever-diversifying assortment of fine-art buyers. "The traditional old-money collectors are still buying, but hedge fund managers have been moving into the market in the past few years as well," he says. Newly rich buyers from Russia have begun collecting French Impressionist and modernist works, and Norman says that buyers from China and India may also soon begin speculating on Western artworks.

Word has also gotten out that well-chosen art can be a very wise investment. "Art is now a distinct asset class and a diversification strategy, even for the ordinary buyer," says Elizabeth von Habsburg, president of New York City art consultancy Masterson Gurr Johns. "That's fueling the market in a big way, and I don't think it's going to slow down anytime soon."

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