11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 56

Rekindled passion

Susan Moore on how the Italians have come back into the art market

It was not only Italian property prices that soared after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's amnesty encouraging citizens to repatriate their money. Apart from bricks and mortar, the Italians, it seems, have rekindled their passion for buying works of art. At the Old Master paintings sales in London in July, it was clear from the swell of chatter at the back of Sotheby's and Christie's salerooms that the dealers and collectors were back in the international market in force. The fevered bidding was reminiscent of the bad old days of the late 1980s when anything Italian was hoovered up by the trade and foisted on to a too credible public back home. This was a time when droll auctioneers would knock something down 'to the

group of gentlemen standing at the back'. What is emerging now is a chastened, more discriminating and, yes, more transparent art market.

During the mid and late 1990s it seemed that the Italians had all but disappeared from the international stage. The banks had stopped buying, and various businessmen had retreated from the market licking their wounds — some limping to the bankruptcy court. One of the few big players to remain was the highly acquisitive Milanese entrepreneur Luigi Koellicker — a man with a penchant for acquiring entire collections. Yet over the last 18 months or so, a significant number of collectors appear to have returned to the fray prepared to pay more than ever for what they want.

Last year's 20th-century Italian art sales in London in October certainly saw aggressive Italian bidding push up prices and establish a handful of new world auction records. At this July's Old Master sales, too, unexpected prices were achieved for 18th-century Italian view painting — a staple market favourite — and for dangerously sexy Baroque paintings, the current hot commodity. One Italian collector paid four times the estimate for a pair of Vanvitelli views (£1.9 million), while the Italian fashion designer Girolamo Etro divulged an unheard of £733,250 for an unknown and untouched 'Salome Presenting the Head of John the Baptist' by the 17th-century Genoese artist Giocchino Assereto. It was expected to fetch £.80,000. Even Italian museums scooped up trophies.

Significantly, last month's Florence Biennale drew clients from Milan and Rome that the dealers had not seen for a decade, quite apart from the smart local set. Thanks in large part to stage designer Pier Luigi Pizzi, who has succeeded in making the event chic, this grandest of Italian fairs — traditionally big on bella figura and short on sales — seems to have

re-established itself since its move from the Palazzo Strozzi to the Palazzo Corsini in 1997. (While most European international art and antiques fairs inhabit grim convention centres and hotel basements, the Florentines stage their fair in a lavish 17th-century palace. Instead of water coolers, they offer a cooling shell-lined grotto; rather than security guards they flank the doors with mounted carabinieri.)

In line with international competitors, the fair for the first time pulled out all the stops to present a spectacular loan exhibition featuring the white porcelain sculpture produced by the Doccia factory, founded in Sesto Fiorentino by Carlo Ginori in 1737 — a subject about which even the Florentines know little. More importantly, for the last two fairs the Florence Export Office and the Ministry of Culture have collaborated with the fair organisers to inspect the more important exhibits and issue them — or not, as the case may be — with certificates allowing their export. A decade ago such a collaboration between the market and state officials — and such easing of red tape and export — would have been unimaginable.

Of the 30 works of art considered by the authorities this year. 26 received certificates. Of course, some of the exhibits were already 'notified' and unable to leave the country, among them Marco Voena's luscious E850,000 Paris Bordone. Others might well have been notified if they had had a recent Italian provenance — not least Hall & Knight's glorious Giambologna bronze Mars ($2.2 million) and the elegant Bernardo Daddi goldground on offer at over E3 million at Moretti. Even in the wake of the 11 September atrocities two years ago, London-based Luca Baroni managed to sell nine paintings.

The signs are that the old two-tier market is disappearing — not the international market but what one might call the national market, which was rife with dubious attributions and paintings in poor condition. This is as a result of the globalisation of the art market, and more particularly of market information and prices through the likes of Artnet. It has become harder to sell wrecks, the mediocre and the overpriced. At the top end of the market, too, clients are knowledgable, better informed about the market and also more focused on what they want in terms of quality, subject-matter and condition. This new awareness is making the home market more credible: it has also had the effect everywhere of encouraging buyers to rely less on the art trade and to buy more at auction — at home and abroad.

Christie's last Old Master auction in London, for instance, saw around 70 per cent private buying, up from the customary 50 per cent. Italian buying has more than doubled in the last 18 months. In two weeks' time, Sotheby's and Christie's present their annual 20th-century Italian art sales in London. First launched by Sotheby's three years ago, these imaginatively presented 'curated' sales have gone from strength to strength. It is testimony to the power of the auction-houses' marketing machines, however, that the percentage of Italian buyers has dropped from around 50 per cent to 35-40 per cent as more and more international collectors turn to this rich and still relatively undervalued vein.

On the evening of 21 October, Christie's will offer the largest — at 77 lots — and most valuable Italian sale ever seen in London (it is expected to realise at least £9 million). Highlights include Marino Marini's anguished, dramatic bronze 'Cavaliere' of 1951 (estimate £1.8 million to £2.2 million) and an important Boetti tapestry (£200,000 to £300,000) made as part of his project to document the thousand longest rivers of the world (tennis fans note that a less rare Boetti embroidered map has been consigned by John McEnroe), Dominating the view will be another museum-quality piece, Pino Pascali's 'Mobile Canon' (above) made out of wood and scrap metal (£500,000 to £700,000). I suspect the Italians are already filling their war chests.