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A Look at How the Art Market Is Faring

The spring art auctions have set new records, but also started to show some cracks in the foundation. The results have left collectors, auction houses and art enthusiasts wondering whether the boom has gone bust.

A Francis Bacon painting fetched $86.3 million at a Sotheby's (BID - Get Report) auction Wednesday night, making it the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever sold. That auction set records for 17 other artists -- and that figure doesn't include records for Claude Monet ($41.5 million), Alberto Giacometti ($27.5 million), Auguste Rodin ($19 million) and Joan Miró ($17.1 million) at a Christie's auction earlier in the month.

Still, more than half of the lots sold in the contemporary evening sales sold below the average estimate, according to ArtTactic, an art-market research firm.

Several pieces -- including those by Picasso, van Gogh, Monet and Matisse -- did not reach minimum estimates, and a hefty portion of works were left unsold. Bidders were sparse even for the record-setting lots, indicating fewer, more selective buyers.


Just as the fine-art market was posting a record $9.2 billion in sales last year, the U.S. credit crisis and housing downturn began to take its toll, sending chills through the global economy. Art enthusiasts had hoped that countries with emerging wealth and fresh talent would be the bright spots that prop up the traditional powerhouses of the U.S. and Europe. There was evidence that such a trend would emerge: China overtook France as the No. 3 market in art revenue last year. Auction houses sharpened their focus there, as well as in India, Russia and Dubai.

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