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Record-Shattering Auction Sales Bode Well For Art Market

November 15th, 2010 | posted by Bill Rau

“Politicians anxiously trying to find out just how serious the current economic difficulties are might like to take a look at the art market…The numbers can leave no one in doubt about the buyer’s readiness to part with cash.”

- Souren Melikian, “What’s in a Name? At Art Auctions, Lots of Money,” The New York Times, Nov. 5th, 2010

At the outset of Sotheby’s 19th Century European Art Sale on November 4th, 2010, the expected sale price of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses was set between $3 and $5 million dollars. When the gavel fell nearly eight minutes later, the final sale price was nowhere near that range. It was seven times that much. After an intense bidding war between three hopeful buyers, one of the undisclosed bidders won the exceptional painting for just under $36 million.

Setting a staggering new record for Alma-Tadema’s work—the same painting had set his previous record at $2.8 million in 1995—this sale was only the first of several record-breakers for the day’s auctions. Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale on the same date witnessed a new record set for Modern artist Amadeo Modigliani’s La Belle Romain, which sold for double its estimated price at $69 million and contributed to Sotheby’s overall sales of  $227.5 million.  And Christie’s followed suit, racking up $231.4 million with their 84-lot Impressionist and Modern Sale.

After a period of economic uncertainty, these record-shattering sales indicate that the art market is steadily regaining strength. Indeed, Sotheby’s had not seen such high numbers for an Impressionist and Modern sale since May of 2008. But with the U.S. stock market at a two-year high, wealthy individuals are again looking at art both for its beauty and for its investment potential. Knowing the rarity of fine art, these affluent connoisseurs come prepared to pay top dollar for works attached to the great masters of art history. But, in today’s economy, what more solid addition to a financial portfolio could one make? Whoever won Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses actually received a bargain. It is one of the most beautiful works by one of the greatest artists of the 19th-century, and it comes with the security of most assuredly rising in value. For that, it is priceless.

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