20080505 matisse auction 18
Henri Matisse's "Portrait au manteau bleu," valued at $17 million, at Christie's New York Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale and Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale May 1, 2008 in New York City. - 


TESS VIGELAND: Contemporary art from China is all the rage these days. Sotheby's sold more than $227 million worth of Chinese art and jewelry during a recent sales event in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the New York art auction season opens today. Sotheby's and Christie's are hoping to sell $1.8 billion worth of Impressionist and contemporary works, 25 percent more than last year.

Jill Barshay paints a picture for us of an art bubble that's just getting larger, despite Wall Street layoffs and a struggling US economy.

JILL BARSHAY: The auction houses are so confident of the art market that they're guaranteeing half the sales. That means they'll buy the art at a minimum price if no one else does. Amy Cappellazzo is the deputy chairman of Christie's. She says prices are so high that veteran collectors are unloading famous paintings by Monet, Rothko and an Andy Warhol print of Marlon Brando perched on a motorcycle.

AMY CAPPELLAZZO: It's an estimate of request, and since you're requesting it, it's $30 million.

Cappellazzo says new foreign investors from China, Russia and the Middle East are fueling the New York art auctions, and ultra-rich Americans are still buying.

CAPPELLAZZO: The art market might be more akin to very, very high-end real estate in Manhattan, whereby you're seeing anything that's sort of rare, precious, special, one of kind, unique is actually kind of holding up.

But cracks are showing. Joan Whalen is a veteran New York art dealer and consultant. She says the Wall Street crowd stopped buying art after their year-end bonuses dwindled or vanished.

JOAN WHALEN: The middle market has suffered a great deal. If you have a painting for $500,000 or $1 million, it'll be gone tomorrow. If you have a painting, $20,000, $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, you're going to have trouble selling it.

That explains Christie's and Sotheby's new policy. They no longer accept consignments for less than $50,000.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.