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Art Market Watch

by Rachel Corbett
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“Contemporary art costs real money now,” said dealer Nick Acquavella at Marion Maneker’s “Artelligence” conference, Sept. 21, 2011. “It’s not like browsing through SoHo on a Saturday afternoon with your checkbook anymore.” Indeed, the panel, speaking to some of the art world’s highest rollers in the main dining room of the New York Athletic Club, was in agreement that blue-chip modern art is the safer investment: it’s often considered a hard asset and the best way to hedge against inflation in a changing economy.

The all-day event, produced by Maneker and his blog Art Market Monitor, featured presentations on “art as a family asset,” “insurance for art estates” and a “Picasso market report,” but “Inside the Modern Market” with Helly Nahmad (Helly Nahmad Gallery), Guy Bennett (Marshall Holdings), Nick Maclean (Eykyn Maclean) and Acquavella (Acquavella Gallery) may have been the highlight of the day. For those who didn’t want to cough up the $500 for a ticket, here’s what happened:

Is Miró the next Picasso?
The gap between the contemporary and the Impressionist and modern art markets is shrinking, said Bennett -- “the bookends are moving.” Collectors are increasingly interested in contextualizing their works by reaching further into the future or the past, with some contemporary buyers stretching back to, say, Paul Cézanne. The ongoing craze for late works by Pablo Picasso might be one indication of this shift, which looks like it could extend for late works by Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró as well.

“Miró is one of the most undervalued of the 20th century masters,” Nahmad proclaimed, reminding some listeners of the masterful Miró show he mounted in his booth at Art 39 Basel in 2008. “We have yet to see a $100 million Miró like we have with Picasso or Alberto Giacometti.” But that may change as well, he predicted. For one thing, the Tate Modern just closed an exhibition of 150 works by the Surrealist artist, his first major retrospective in 50 years, and it’s scheduled to travel to the U.S. next.

Miró’s later works have inspired renewed interest, Maclean said, because the supply has been so limited. “We haven’t seen Miró because great Miró hasn’t come up to the market,” added Nahmad. “People are forced to look at other works that are available.” This means that collectors who normally don’t want late-in-life paintings (many avant-garde artists are thought to fall off with age) are reconsidering. After all, according to Nahmad, cashing in on his famous name was “not the case with Miró,” adding that the artist’s late output, like Picasso’s, is considered to be some of his most mature and intellectual.

Finally, Acquavella added that Miró is particularly promising because his work appeals to those collectors with more contemporary sensibilities. “His use of collage can appeal to someone who likes Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns,” he said. And his use of feathers, like in Spanish Dancer, 1928, reminded Acquavella of Damien Hirst’s butterfly collages.

Private sales distort the marketplace
“If you just look at the auction records, it looks like Henri Matisse is only worth a quarter of the value of Picasso,” Acquavella said. “But people in this room know that he can bring in $100 million in a private auction.” Private sales are on the rise -- there’s no deadlines for dealers and consignors can name the price they actually want rather than taking a risk at auction -- but they lead to an opaque marketplace.

Dealers need the sales data from public auctions to justify their prices. If they’re selling a work for a particular price, they must prove that a comparable work has sold for a comparable price at auction. And collectors need the results, too, in order to value their works. As Nahmad pointed out, “When I buy an artist I have to make sure I keep buying that artist every time he goes to auction. If I own 10 works for $1 million each, and I see an 11th for $700,000 then that means my other 10 are worth $700,000, so I’m forced to bid. So, I either acquire the work at good value or get outbid for $1.2 million, but then my other 10 are worth $1.2 million.”

The next artist
The panelists weighed in with their predictions on which artists’ markets might be on the incline in years to come. Nahmad said he thought Picasso’s market would continue going up -- the artist is dead and his supply is controlled (in no small part by Nahmad’s family, it should be noted). But, as far as “out-of-the-box” artists go Nahmad bet on late-in-life works by Miró, Fernand Léger and Wassily Kandinsky. Maclean proffered the “two R’s”: Rauschenberg and Gerhard Richter. The former is unfairly perceived as overly prolific, he said, and the market of the latter “has a very long way to go.” Acquavella pointed out that the Neue Gallery’s purchase of Gustav Klimt’s $135 million portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) from Leonard Lauder made it “a lot easier to digest” higher prices for that artist. Finally, Bennett saw potential in Vincent van Gogh drawings. “He was an artist who really put value into his works on paper, and you can still buy them for $500,000 to $2 million.”

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email