Art & Culture

Art market steadies as big spenders shell out

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Big spenders paying record-breaking prices are offsetting lighter volume for upscale-art auction houses, experts from Sotheby's and Christie's told CNBC Friday.

"I think the market has found its feet," Christie's auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." "I think we're in a situation where the market was very hot last year. It was slightly [inflated] in some areas. Having said that, we've seen world records this week."

Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby's also said the art market had hit a floor, and that she was looking forward to a "robust" June season. Indeed, at a recent Wednesday evening sale, Sotheby's saw the highest number of bidders from Asia since 2004, Cappellazzo said.

An Art specialist at Christie's speaks about Frida Kahlo's 'Dos desnudos en el bosque (La Tierra Misma)' on April 29, 2016, in New York.
Frida Kahlo painting sells for over $8M

"While there's an appearance the market may have thinned, we see those who are players coming on very strong, and that's pan Asia," Cappellazzo said.

A Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait sold Tuesday for $57.3 million to a young Japanese businessman, setting a record for the artist.

"This is a prime example of a picture that really resonated with him and he's really open about that," Pylkkanen said. "The reason he bought it was it meant something to him personally. That's when you get record prices — when people are not just engaged in the artwork, but they're seeing it as a reflection of themselves."

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The bid came amid smaller spring sales, where few works broke the $100 million mark that had become customary in past years. Activist investors have pressed Sotheby's for more return, and Christie's had seen a lack of material, especially among Impressionist artists, Pylkkanen said, as sellers exercised caution.

"Our pricing, you have to bear in mind, was set in December and January, as we were moving into markets that were a little bit insecure — the oil price dropping, finance markets in a little bit of trouble," Pylkkanen said. "People have to choose the right moment to sell their major work of art."

Still, the art market has seen several recent blockbusters, including a Frida Kahlo painting that sold for just over $8 million at auction, setting a record for both Kahlo and Latin American artists. Monet's "Pond With Water Lilies" also sold for $27 million this week.

"Now that people know where the market is, there's a lot more certainty," Cappellazzo told CNBC's "Squawk Alley." "Little by little, when the market knows, it becomes more confident."

— Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.