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How Monet, Freud, Hirst Records Led Art-Market Bubble to Burst
Art prices extended a seven-year surge for much of 2008, with a Claude Monet painting of water lilies, Lucian Freud's portrait of a civil servant called Sue and a Francis Bacon triptych setting records.

A 111.5 million pound ($162 million at current rates) sale of Damien Hirst works in September featured pickled unicorns, flying pigs and a golden calf with 18-carat hooves and horns.

From 2003 to 2007, worldwide auction sales of contemporary art grew more than eightfold, said the French-based database Artprice. The Hirst sale coincided with the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc and the rise in auction prices then came to halt, said dealers.

"The mood has changed," Anders Petterson, founder and managing director of the London-based art market research company ArtTactic, told Bloomberg in October. "The magnitude of the economic crisis is such that even the ultra-rich will have second thoughts about buying things."

Key sale dates and results up to that time in 2008:

Dubai Sales

March 3: With the art market still on a high, Iran's Farhad Moshiri became the first Middle Eastern artist to sell at auction for $1 million. "Eshgh" (Love) fetched $1.05 million with fees at Bonhams's first auction in Dubai.

The Swarovski-crystal-encrusted canvas had been expected to fetch up to $200,000.

Bonhams's sale of Middle-Eastern contemporary art fetched $13 million, twice the estimate, with 94 percent of the lots successful. Three days before the auction, the benchmark price of crude oil had closed above $102 per barrel for the first time.

Nov. 24: When Bonhams held its second sale of Middle Eastern art in Dubai, the price of crude oil had almost halved. This time the auction total was $2.9 million, with only 44 percent of the works finding buyers.

Chinese Art

April 9: "Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3" painting by Chinese market star Zhang Xiaogang fetched HK$47.4 million ($6.1 million) with fees at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, setting a record for the artist.

The work was part of the Estella Collection sold by New York art dealer William Acquavella, who was putting it on the block eight months after acquiring it from an investment group.

The two-part Estella Collection sale tracked the financial markets as they went from boom to bust. Chinese contemporary-art prices had shot up as much as 15 times in the past four years, largely on speculative trading. As liquidity dried up later in the year, scores of artworks went unsold.

The first part of the Estella sale, valued at as much as $12 million, fetched about $18 million with 98 of the 108 artworks sold. In the second part, which coincided with the Lehman bankruptcy, only 64 percent of lots found buyers.

'Big Sue'

May 13: Lucian Freud's 1995 portrait of the 280-pound civil servant Sue Tilley, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," became the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction, fetching $33.6 million at Christie's International in New York.

The British painter took the priciest-artist baton from American artist Jeff Koons, who had held it since Nov. 2007.

Bacon Triptych

May 14: Bacon's "Triptych, 1976" sold for $86.3 million at Sotheby's New York, supplanting Mark Rothko's 1950 canvas "White Center" as the most expensive contemporary artwork sold at auction.

The Bacon paintings (and Christie's $33.6 million Freud) were purchased by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea Football Club in the U.K., dealers said. Abramovich would not comment. The Bacon work led Sotheby's $362 million sale, its biggest ever, during which 18 records were set for artists ranging from Yves Klein to Takashi Murakami.

Zeng's Masks

May 24: Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi's "Mask Series 1996 No.6" set a record for Asian contemporary art when it sold for HK$75.4 million with fees at Christie's in Hong Kong.

Zeng's canvas of mask-clad figures wearing the scarf of China's Red Guards more than quadrupled its presale low estimate of HK$15 million.

"Mask" was the top lot at an auction of 34 works by Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese artists that totaled HK$317.4 million. The mood was upbeat as bidders sipped Perrier- Jouet champagne and munched on dim sum. Only two works failed to sell.

Monet's Record

June: A series of Impressionist sales in London, led by the Monet painting, gave few indications that the mood in the market was about to change.

Christie's auction on June 24 fetched 144.4 million pounds with fees, the highest-ever total for a European art sale.

Monet's 1919 "Le Bassin aux Nympheas" topped the evening with a record 40.9 million pounds, doubling the low estimate. The 6-foot, 7-inch-wide canvas was bought in the room by the London- based art adviser Tania Buckrell Pos, who has Russian collectors among her clients.

The Monet was one of 17 works entered into the sale from the estate of the Columbus, Indiana collectors, the late J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller. A weak dollar and strong demand from Russian buyers at London Impressionist auctions had encouraged U.S. consignors to sell in the U.K. capital.

Hirst Sale

Sotheby¡¯s Sept. 15-16 "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever¡± sale of new works by Hirst represented the peak of the contemporary-art market, according to a survey published in October by the U.K.-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The 223-lot auction -- beginning on the day Lehman filed for bankruptcy -- totaled 111.5 million pounds with fees against a high estimate of 98 million pounds, based on hammer prices.

"The Golden Calf," a formaldehyde piece featuring a Charolais bull calf embellished with precious metal horns and hooves, set a record price for the artist of 10.3 million pounds. Ninety-eight percent of the works sold, said Sotheby's.

In November, the ftalphaville.ft.com blog said that Sotheby's Hirst auction had "run into trouble" and that up to three-quarters of the agreed sales had failed.

On Dec. 10, the auction house responded with an e-mailed statement: "Sotheby's has not encountered any payment problems with buyers for lots in the Hirst sale and no purchaser has asked Sotheby's to re-offer any lots."

Payment Terms

When asked to respond to dealers' suggestions that buyers had been given up to 12 months to pay their bills, Matthew Weigman, Sotheby's London-based head of public relations, said in a telephone interview that the payment terms at the Hirst auction were no different from those printed in the catalog.

The Hirst catalog's "Guide for Prospective Buyers" said the auction house may in limited circumstances offer buyers it deems creditworthy "the option of paying for their purchases on an extended payment term basis." The catalog doesn't specify any time limit for these arrangements.

"If bills aren't due to be paid for six months, then there's no problem with payment at the moment, is there?" said London art dealer Offer Waterman.

This is the first of two articles about key auction prices of the year. The second report will be published tomorrow.