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|Art Market Watch
by Richard Polsky
|The contemporary art market continues to surge forward, at least insofar as Sotheby's and Christie's have been deluged with offers of property for the fall 2000 sales. Meanwhile, upstart rival Phillips has beaten its competitors to the promotional punch by taking out a full-page advertisement in the summer issue of ARTnews, alerting collectors to the forthcoming sale of a Gerhard Richter painting.
Until now, the hottest markets have been for the works of Richter, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. Prices for all of these artists have made the 1989 market top a faint memory.
Collectors continue to ask, "How much higher can prices go?" The answer is that as long as the economy stays sound, there's virtually no limit to what the best works by the most important artists will bring. But the minute the economy weakens, if you're not holding a work by an important artist that is at least a nine on a scale of ten -- look out.
The question that no one seems to be asking is what happens if the art market mirrors the predicted "soft landing" of the economy after the elections? What if art prices merely maintain the status quo?
One possible future scenario is that art will continue to sell at somewhere around its current high price levels -- not moving up or down. That may represent the best scenario of all.
The art market loves stability. Dealers can accumulate inventory because they're not frantic to flip each purchase immediately. A dealer can hang on for the long run and wait for the right buyer.
A more predictable market also makes collectors comfortable. They can evolve a long-term collecting plan rather than chase the flavor-of-the-month, for fear of missing out.
Regardless of the economy, one thing that is likely to change is the overheated market for large-scale color photography. Anyone who attended the May 2000 contemporary art sales in New York walked out of the auction rooms puzzled by the prices brought by Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Nan Goldin.
For example, a very attractive photograph by Thomas Struth of a historic interior, titled Pantheon, Rome, brought $270,000 against an estimate of $70,000-$90,000. Over and over, this pattern of photographs going for double and triple estimate was repeated.
If you stop and think about it, this material is grossly overpriced -- the record-setting Struth is an edition of 10! In theory, that means the piece in its entirety is worth an astounding $2.7 million. That's ridiculous.
It's highly likely that this pattern of high prices for color photography will continue for one more round during the fall season. But come the May 2001 sales, I seriously doubt these photographers will continue to appreciate.
Assuming the economy slows down, look for the classics of the last 50 years to be the most sought after properties. Safe havens for deep-pocketed collectors and dealers will likely be classic works by the Pop artists and the Minimalists.
If you have only moderately deep pockets, however, I would investigate works done during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by the key figures from these earlier movements.
For example, works by James Rosenquist from the 1960s are rare and pricey. But his "flowers with overlays of women's faces," from the 1980s, are quality works and much less expensive then their '60s counterparts. Robert Rauschenberg's current soft-focus silkscreen paintings are some of the best works he's done in years. I also like Ed Ruscha's recent paintings that resemble street maps of Los Angeles.
Speaking of photography, a developing trend is that people who previously collected original prints seem to be switching to buying photographs. Part of the reason is that many of the top printmakers, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Diebenkorn, are no longer around. Still other greats, such as David Hockney, haven't produced a single quality edition since the 1980s. America's greatest printmaker, Jasper Johns, only releases a couple of small editions a year. You also have the retirement of innovative printer Kenneth Tyler and the closing of Tyler Graphics.
As a result, there really is little new for print collectors to buy. Younger collectors, who traditionally start out by buying prints, are convinced that the better value lies in up-and-coming photographers -- whose works are frequently in the $600-$1,800 range. It's hard to argue with their approach.
On the gallery front, most New York dealers who trade in the secondary market have kept their spaces open during July. In fact, many talk of following last year's trend of staying open for most of August. The seasonal flavor of New York art dealing is quietly becoming a year-round endeavor.
Dealers have been changing their approach in other ways. It used to be that dealers would buy a painting with the obvious thought of reselling it, hopefully within a year. The profits would then be used to buy into the next deal.
But in conversation with other dealers, a new mentality seems to be emerging. Some dealers have come to realize that it's the collectors who make the most money -- not the dealers. Since collectors are buying with discretionary funds, they can afford to keep whatever they buy. If they picked right, 20 years down the road their collections are often worth a considerable amount of money.
Suddenly, you hear dealers talking about adapting a similar strategy. Rather than take the "short" money, the new paradigm is to hang onto anything exceptional rather than consider it inventory.
If more dealers begin to think of themselves as collectors who deal, expect to see even fewer quality works in the galleries and auction rooms.
RICHARD POLSKY is an art dealer and author of Art Market Guide (San Francisco, 1998). He can be contacted at email@example.com.