Great art may be eternal. But great art prices are the product of their times. And right now, the business of selling multi-million-dollar paintings is being tested.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Tuesday's election and the subsequent stock-market fall, Christie's kicked off the fall auction season with a sale that could generously be described as "subdued."
Fully 21 of the 69 lots failed to sell during Christie's Impressionist and modern art sale this week. The sale totaled $204.8 million, just shy of its estimate of $209 million. Among the works that didn't sell was a major Picasso bronze, which had been expected to top $10 million.
Still, many works sold for at or above their estimates. One of Monet's "Water Lilies" sold for $43.7 million, including Christie's fees. That was on the high end of its estimate of $30 million to $50 million. Another top seller, Kandinsky's 1909 "Study for Improvisation 8," above, sold for $23 million – a new record for Kandinsky. (Read more: France's 'Rich Tax' Creates Bargains on Mansions)
Many art dealers chalked up the weak sales to the distractions of the storm, the election and markets. But others say the Sotheby's and Christies auctions in New York this week and next simply have too many works of middling quality. (Read more: Does China Love Luxury Brands Too Much?)
The true measure of the art market and demand from collectors will come Nov. 13 through Nov. 15, with the Post-war and Contemporary sales at Sotheby's and Christie's. My guess is that those sales will be stronger, since the wealthy continue to see art as a safe haven from an increasingly volatile stock market and uncertain governments. (Read more:
-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter: @robtfrank