Belfast Telegraph

The good news is gems are taking a hammering

By Margaret Canning

Ernst & Young's announcement that it will be taking on 300 people over the next 18 months is a significant vote of confidence in Ireland's economy, even though the firm admits much of their workload in the short term is taken up with advising clients on how to cut costs.

Any signs of life in the UK's economy appear to be shortlived, with a survey of the construction market showing building activity at an eight-month low. And even though our own construction industry is probably worse off, a spate of job creation announcements here has improved optimism and self-confidence.

But across the pond in the Big Apple, there is another more subtle sign that the dog days of downturn could be drawing to a close. A large number of auction houses in New York are gearing up to flog over $1bn of artwork during their autumn sales and they think the demand could be there to make some pretty big sales.

The sought-after gems at Christie's include possessions of the financier Henry Kravis, such as Back IV, a bronze of a female back by Matisse, which alone could fetch $25m. A Modigliani nude called La Belle Romaine had a pre-sale estimate of 40m euros at Sotheby's.

Altogether, over 2,260 artworks will be eyed up by new owners, a dramatic increase on last year when, like cautious homeowners, collectors feared underselling of their precious pictures. And who knows, a corporate collector could end up toting home Andy Warhol's Big Campbell's Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable) for their boardroom - though he or she might have to shell out $50m for the privilege.

Christie's maintains the hugely wealthy of this world will always be seduced by art. "Picasso, Monet, Renoir are always on the wish list," said one auctioneer.

But analysts think demand for the New York offerings could come from Asia.

"Mainland Chinese in their 40s to 50s make money and aggressively buy Asian art, but a part of them become more international and want to be diversified," commented a Sotheby's director.

Robert Manley, head of contemporary art at Christie's, remarked that a year was a long time in art sales. "It's amazing what a year can make. The estimate sale has quadrupled."

Bank of Ireland, which has put its art collection up for sale, is hoping those big spenders will come back across the pond and be tempted by its treasures.

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