Big art auction firms look to pickup

Talk of trouble in the art market, the major art auction houses are finding, is often harder to overcome than real trouble.

It is no secret that the past year has been somewhat unkind to the art-auction business. In fact, the amount of talk about just how bad the art market has been seems to be more frightening to Sotheby Parke Bernet and Christie's, the world's largest art and antique auction houses, than the actual reduction of sales.

In the past few weeks the two auction houses have started their own counteroffensive, designed to revive both buyer and seller confidence in the market.

Christie's and Sotheby had downturns of 10 and 25 percent, respectively, in the 1981-82 season, compared with the year before. Many works on the auction block went for less than their estimated value or simply did not sell.

Many investors found themselves turning from the art market to other, higher-yielding areas of investment - such as the money markets - and still others were turned off collecting by high interest rates. The auction houses want to convince the public that the art market is still a choice arena for the discerning big spender.

Both firms have begun a major marketing effort to attract previous and potential art collectors and have scheduled traveling exhibits of the works that will be on sale; lecture series; publicity; and advertisements. In addition, the two houses have attempted to bring their estimates for works down to a level where selling prices will not appear to be a disappointment - a major cause of the feeling that a recession has hit the art market.

''We're going to the market, where we think it is sound,'' noted Elizabeth Shaw, vice-president of Christie's. ''We want people to know that they can be confident about the art they are buying.''

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