Art Market Watch
THE ART MARKET
This month's May auction performances gleaned countless viewers, gawkers, critics and some buyers -- indeed, a sufficient number of buyers to drive the prices of a small number of pictures to new records. The rotation within the small pyramid at the top continued. Munch entered, a Viking. Prince exited, a bad joke too many. Basquiat trumped Hirst. Wool went back and forth between big prices and no prices. The classics made records; some missed completely.
The nights soared with genius marketing. A torn Picasso brought a record price -- more than even intact Picassos of the period. Lackluster works of name provenance soared beyond prices that great works usually bring. Buyers were not fearful of competing with guarantors. The swansong of, perhaps, the best auctioneer of the last three decades, was a song of great spirit, encouraged by vigorous bidding. All and all the future seems evident. Or does it?
At the same time, the remains of the night sales, pretty good to even great works of art, less in the focus by the small cadre of "hype" buyers, did not do as well. Those which sold often sold for far below the low estimates. The top of the popular (with these few buyers) pyramid is getting smaller. Some artists are falling out! Their replacements are not so much new artists coming in but rather more the works of art from the small group of artists viewed as great and hot.
Clearly this means more spectacle -- fewer names for the buyers in the pyramid leads to higher prices for their names! Richter, Calder, Warhol, Rothko, et al. We read and believe the art market is rising. It is spectacular. It is the greatest alternative investment. It is where we should have a portion of our investments. All of this is true, but like all other markets, the art market goes up and even goes down once in a while -- all markets correct regardless of long-term trends. No market can be measured in total by a less than 1% sample.
In fact, observing the recent auctions, the gallery business, the art fairs, the private dealers, even if anecdotal, might yield a view that the larger art market has become top-heavy, and though the "popular" artists' works are experiencing increased prices, the rest is, at best, in the doldrums. Less popular works in the night sales barely survived the evenings. The day sales spoke huge numbers to the world, but once again these numbers were achieved as a tail to the "popular" artists, not as a spreading out of interest to other art that is both good and available.
The less hyped works failed to achieve prices in any way related to the "big boys' art." Recent auctioning of "people's art," such as prints and young artists, have seriously disappointed most sellers. The average gallerists (not the few at the top) are struggling, some on the verge of closing or reducing their spaces and staff. Some, having decided to close, leave the business. Art fairs, I read all the time: "We did very well. We broke even and made great contacts for the future." As art dealers are prone to optimism, I think that means, "We didn't do well at the art fair." Private dealers call each other daily to complain that the auction houses and art fairs are taking their business away.
Is it possible that these anecdotes have a meaning? Well, if they do we are about to repeat periods of market history that these same anecdotes might have predicted. The two that ring most vividly to me are November 1989, and May 2008 -- the high auctions before the corrections. I think we are soon due for a correction. This does not change my view that art is a most interesting asset to hold. The market is developing with increased transparency and liquidity. It has, by most measurements, outperformed all other markets for the last 15 years and probably for decades. However, one needs to proceed carefully. Rebounds from corrections in the art market generally leave much of the previous hype behind for the new trip to the moon.