When the economy is shaky, art collectors turn their attention to works sure to be sound investments: Matisse, Raphael, and even Warhol. That's bad news for contemporary artists, but at least the market is afloat.
It was a direct consequence of the finance crisis that Picasso's "Mousquetaire a la pipe" sold for nearly 9 million euros ($13 million) last May at Christie's auction house in New York. The seller, Bernhard Madoff, had lost nearly 103 million euros in the stock market and needed to unload the Picasso to help bail himself out.
Madoff's case was an exception, though, as the finance crisis didn't yield many other emergency deals on the art market. Apart from the auction of French couturier Yves Saint Laurent's collection in New York - for an impressive 258 million euros - big sales have been disappointingly rare since the global economy plummeted into despair.
"At the moment, less art is being offered for sale," expert Ute Thon from the German magazine Art told Deutsche Welle. "Anyone who isn't desperate to sell is waiting until the market improves."
A bargain at 35 million euros - "The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric" by Henri Matisse
Old masters are safe investments
Those sellers which chose to brave the market persuaded many bidders with the quality of their pieces. Christiane von Zengen, proprietor of an auction house in Bonn, reported many "unusually high quality lots" in 2009. Of these, it was the classical works which attracted the most interest from bidders, no doubt considering them a safer investment than contemporary pieces.
The high-price winner was Henri Matisse's "The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric," which changed hands for 35 million euros. "That is a quality piece and with such a purchase, one shouldn't need worry about depreciation," estimated Thon.
The second most expensive purchase of the year was a piece by Renaissance artist Raphael. That a work by such an old master should even come to auction was a sensation, justifying in the eyes of many the 32 million euros paid for the 20 x 30 centimeter chalk sketch.
"These drawings are so rare that most are already hanging in museums. That is a sound investment," said Thon.
Warhol a modern classic
It may come as a surprise, then, that a modern by comparison screenprint from the 1960s took third place, with 29 million euros. It was, however, a piece by Andy Warhol, the icon of modern art. Apparently, plenty of wealthy art enthusiasts like to adorn their walls with his works - as long as they are clearly recognizable as such, said Thon.
The question of whether the price is justified divides the art world, though Warhol's creations have sold for considerably more in the past.
It's not always at auctions where art claims the highest earnings. The priciest fall of the hammer went for Picasso's painting "Boy with a pipe" - it was auctioned for an unprecedented 35 million euros in 2004.
But that is only a pittance compared to the most expensive painting ever sold. In 2006, film and music producer David Geffin sold a painting by Jackson Pollock to a Mexican collector for approximately 97 million euros.
"200 One Dollar Bills" by Andy Warhol was the top selling contemporary piece in 2009
Still in the black
Looking back, fortunes were mixed for the art market in 2009, which - unlike some industries - remained in the black.
Christiane von Zengen told Deutsche Welle that her auction house in Bonn had experienced "one of the best years in the company's history. There was no sign of the financial crisis and no sign of a slump in profits."
Others' experiences weren't quite so stellar. Sotheby's and Christie's, according to Thon, have estimated that total revenue was similar to that in 2006, an average year.
The art expert is keen to remind that the art market should not be mistaken with art: "If you were to ask me, 'how is art?' then I would reply, 'art is doing well!'"
Author: Dirk Schneider (as)
Editor: Kate Bowen