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posted: 1/31/2014 5:45 AM

A touch of red helps global art market boom

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  • A Sotheby's employee poses for photographers with "Wand" by Gerhard Richter, center, "Mao" by Andy Warhol, left, and "Rosso Plastica" by Alberto Burri on display at the auction house in London Wednesday.

      A Sotheby's employee poses for photographers with "Wand" by Gerhard Richter, center, "Mao" by Andy Warhol, left, and "Rosso Plastica" by Alberto Burri on display at the auction house in London Wednesday.
    Associated Press

 
By Jill Lawless, Associated Press

LONDON -- Want to sell that masterpiece for a fortune? It might help if it's red.

That's just one trend from an art market that has come roaring back from the global financial crisis, with buyers from emerging markets such as China molding tastes and driving top-end prices ever higher.

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Sales next week at London's Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses are expected to generate at least 400 million pounds ($658 million) amid an insatiable global appetite for works by Picasso, Matisse and other modern masters.

Sotheby's put its works on public display in London Thursday, and there was a distinct scarlet hue to the star lots -- Gerhard Richter's cadmium-colored abstract "Wall," expected to sell for at least 15 million pounds; an Andy Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao valued at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds; a vivid red piece in molten plastic by Alberto Burri that could break the 3-million-pound record for the Italian artist.

"When we're pricing things we're aware of the power of red," said Alex Branczik, head of Sotheby's contemporary art department in London.

"Red is a color that incites passion. It's the color of the sunset, it's the color of blood," he said. "I think it's more primal than nationality, but I do think it has a special resonance for Asian buyers," for whom red may have associations with luck and happiness.

There is some evidence to support this theory -- four of the five most expensive Richters ever sold are red. Sotheby's says there's a chance "Wall" could smash expectations and beat the $37.1 million record for a living painter.

Buyers from Asia, and especially China, are one reason the art market has rebounded from the global financial crisis of 2008.

Newly affluent Chinese collectors began by buying works from their own country -- both modern art and historic treasures -- before moving into European contemporary art and other areas.

Sotheby's estimates that China now accounts for $14 billion of the $58 billion global art market. Asian buyers spent twice as much on contemporary artworks at the auction house in 2013 as they did the year before.

Art spending by Latin Americans also leapt last year, while Russian and Middle Eastern collectors continue to pay record prices.

"When I started in this industry, it was really European and American (buyers)," said Jay Vincze, head of Christie's Impressionist and modern department. "Now it is truly global.

"The market is strong," he said. "The buyers are out there."

That has led to a mood of quiet optimism at the auction houses.

In sales of Impressionist, modern and Surrealist art starting Feb. 4, Christie's has Pablo Picasso's "Woman in a Turkish Costume," a portrait of his wife and muse Jacqueline Roque -- estimated at up to 20 million pounds -- and Juan Gris' cubist "Still Life with Checked Tablecloth," valued at up to 18 million pounds.

There are also multimillion-dollar works by Piet Mondrian, Rene Magritte, Fernand Leger and Joan Miro.

"When you look around these rooms, the supply we've got this season is incredibly rich and varied," Vincze said Thursday. "The quality is very, very high."

A few blocks away at Sotheby's, sales that start Feb. 5 include Vincent Van Gogh's "Man is at Sea," once owned by actor Errol Flynn; Lucian Freud's portrait "Head on a Green Sofa"; and works by Claude Monet, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.

Another highlight is Camille Pissarro's 1897 "Boulevard Monmartre," which Sotheby's calls "one of the most important Impressionist paintings we've handled." It's estimated at 7 to 10 million pounds, but there's a feeling it could fetch more.

It's a far cry from the jittery years after the 2008 banking crisis, when works went unsold or reached lackluster prices.

Auctioneers are already looking to woo the next wave of wealthy art buyers. Christie's held its first sale in India last month, and Sotheby's opens an exhibition of Indian and international art in New Delhi on Friday.

And, said Branczik, "I think Central Asia is interesting. It's a place where a lot of wealth is being generated."

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