Like a classic Mexican standoff, the market for blue-chip art has come to a virtual standstill. The storyline goes something like this: The only speculators/collectors willing to sell want yesterday’s prices. The only speculators/collectors open to buying want today’s prices. That being the case, precious few deals are getting done.
With the price declines at last November’s auctions, collectors and dealers alike were licking their chops at the thought of scooping up art at 50 cents on the dollar. Fear was in the air. Prior to the sale, auction house experts were actually telling collectors (off the record) what it would take to secure certain guaranteed paintings. After the sale, Sotheby’s and Christie’s public relations departments did their best to put a positive spin on the results. But veteran collectors weren’t buying it. They were too busy plotting how to get that $5 million Mark Rothko painting on paper for only $2.5 million -- or less.
On a personal level, my first thought was that my Andy Warhol green Fright Wig that I sold for $375,000 in May, 2005 -- which would have been valued at several million dollars during the market’s acme (London sales of June 2007) -- was back to being worth around $375,000 again. These thoughts were confirmed by the recent results brought by a triumvirate of small "Fright Wig" paintings that averaged a little over $400,000 apiece, at Sotheby’s February 2009 sales in London.
But back to the present. In any market, it is a proven fact that you make your best deals when others are desperate. If you are in a strong cash position and have the courage of your convictions, you often end up looking brilliant five years down the road. After the November 2008 sales, which saw Lehman Brothers’ Richard and Kathy Fuld dumping their Abstract Expressionist drawings, it seemed certain that other high-profile collectors would follow suit. The talk was that the auction houses would be offered so much material, that at long last they could afford to be more selective. Finally, the market was going to be about connoisseurship. Yeah, right.
As the Great Recession enters its fifth month, none of the above predictions have come to pass. Instead, we are learning that most serious collectors have deeper pockets than we thought. Though their securities portfolios are obviously lower, and the value of their home(s) have gone down, they’re not looking to sell their art. What they’ve come to realize is that if they bought when prices were low, they’re still far ahead of the game. If they acquired their collection over the last few years, they may have overpaid, but so what? Even though art is now considered an asset, it remains an enjoyable one. As the music executive Ahmet Ertegun once told then-aspiring collector David Geffen, "A painting is the nicest thing you can have in your house."
It is the dealers who are currently in trouble, and to a lesser degree the auction houses. The key is being able to hang on until the end of the year. The likely scenario is that the gears to a gradual art-market recovery are already turning. The upcoming May 2009 auctions will be small, with paintings carrying low estimates. Chances are good that almost everything will sell. A new level of prices will be established. At that point, sellers will reluctantly accept these adjustments. By the end of 2009, art will be trading more freely again.
Not that it’s going to be easy. Great things have not depreciated that much. Witness last November’s record price for a Joseph Cornell "Pharmacy" box. Whoever bought it knows he paid too much. But he still did the right thing. The art market is unlikely to see another box that important for the next 20 years. Collectors who "want something for nothing" would do well to keep this example in mind. You are still going to have to pay up for anything wonderful.
The other half of the equation is that it is still just as difficult to buy a work on the primary market by artists who were sought after during the boom. Recently, I called a colleague at the Gagosian Gallery with what I thought was welcome news. I had lined up a bona fide collector who wanted to purchase a portrait by Glenn Brown. Given that Brown is a gallery artist, whose primary market prices are in the $750,000 range, I expected to be greeted like a savior. Instead, my gallery contact gave me the usual song and dance about there being nothing available. While he was probably telling the truth, his inability to produce a painting illustrated that the demand for top living artists remains strong.
The best thing dealers can do right now is keep their overhead low and their spirits up. Spend time developing personal projects. Write the book you’ve always wanted to write. Go on safari to Africa. Enjoy your life. The art market standoff isn’t forever. Normally, combining vision with hard work is the answer to everything in business. But not this time. Right now, the answer is patience.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of the forthcoming book I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon), available now for pre-order on Amazon.