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Connoisseurs take back control of art market

LONDON. Souren Melikian
A new order is emerging in the art market and, in startling contrast to the broader economy, this calls for a celebration.

That art would follow a separate course in the current global crisis was bound to happen because a fundamental characteristic singles it out among all the goods that are traded. Each work is unique. One landscape by Monet does not equal another landscape by Monet and one Louis XV commode is not the same as any other Louis XV commode. The style, the condition, the aura derived from the weight of history or the lack thereof combine to give each one its specific set of characteristics that determine how desirable it is. And here is the factor that makes buying art fundamentally different from ordinary commercial transactions - desire, the combustible that fuels the art market engine.

These days, it is made more vivid by a sense of urgency as art supplies dramatically shrink. If you pine for a Lanvin suit, you will still be able to buy another one a few days later. If you are dead keen on a landscape by Monet, instant action is advisable because the opportunity of getting it may never recur.

The last-chance syndrome accounts for the otherwise inexplicable performance of some works of art observed on the auction scene from New York to Paris as the economic outlook kept darkening last fall.

The most remarkable example was the $60 million "Suprematist Composition" by Kazimir Malevich sold at Sotheby's New York on Nov. 3. The Dow Jones had just plunged but this was a chance in a lifetime. The picture, which had been hanging in an Amsterdam museum for 50 years, only tumbled on to the market following a court decision restituting it to the artist's family.

There were other phenomenal successes. "Danseuse au repos" set a world record for a pastel by Degas and became the most expensive work on paper ever auctioned as it realized $37 million. While media commentators focused on the losses incurred by Sotheby's and Christie's that week as a result of "guarantees" conceded to consignors to secure their property, the truly significant phenomenon was that extraordinary prices continued to be paid.

Gloom deepened in December and yet the last-chance syndrome remained as effective as ever. When the rarity of the month, a 35.36-carat blue diamond, came up at Christie's London on Dec. 10, with a £9.9 million, or $15 million, estimate, specialists could not conceal their apprehension. The most expensive stone ever sold before, a 100.10-carat diamond seen in 1995 at Sotheby's Geneva, had made 19.85 million Swiss francs, then about $16.5 million. François Curiel, international head of the jewelry departments and chairman of Christie's Europe, told the International Herald Tribune that the top professionals who came to inspect the blue diamond the day before the sale expressed admiration but showed no intention of taking part in the action. Yet when the moment of decision came, Laurence Graff of London, the world leader in precious stones who personally collects diamonds, kept bidding until he defeated Aleks Paul, a Russian-born New York professional, to the tune of £16.4 million.

The blue diamond was, again, a chance in a lifetime. Its history can be reconstructed as far back as 1664, when King Philip IV of Spain presented it to his daughter Margareta Teresa on the occasion of her betrothal to Emperor Leopold I of Austria. The gem is not just a fantastic stone, with its unusual intense blue color. It is, above all, a supreme work of art. The cut of the diamond, which is an Indian stone, brings out a typically Iranian geometrical pattern such as may be seen on the underside of architectural domes and gives a clue to its likely maker's name, Sa'ida-ye Gilani, the Iranian head of the jewelry workshop of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), who was a famous gem cutter. This would make it the most important intact historical diamond from the Islamic world. None of this was mentioned by Christie's.

Little wonder that an art collector with sharp eyes such as Graff desperately wanted it. In a telling contrast, the rest of the sale fared poorly, leaving 56 percent of the lots unsold. These were fine but not irreplaceable jewels. Estimates had been set before the autumn troubles and bidders saw no compelling reason to match them.

On Dec. 16, the powerful impact of splendor and rarity could be verified in Paris in a very different field. Christie's was dispersing French furniture and decorative objects mostly from the 17th to the 19th century, including 11 pieces of which all but one had been bought from the Galerie Segoura. Maurice Segoura, a leading Parisian antiquaire for years, made no secret that he targeted the superrich. His price tags reflected his policy and reverberated on the estimates. Even so, seven lots found takers, some at extremely high levels.