OCTOBER 2008 NEWSLETTER

GET YOUR ART CAREER WHILE IT’S HOT, by Carole Lieff

With the New York Stock Exchange Volatility Index at a historic high, and Sotheby’s (BID) stock plummeting from $56 last October to $9 a share today, what’s an art dealer to do in these seemingly troubled times? More specifically, is it somehow possible for dealers and gallerists to use anemic economic parameters to their own advantage?

If you’re not yet a big player but want to be, there is no time like the present to stake your claim in the art market. Just remember that the name of the game in this business is to exploit all potential opportunity. I promise you, opportunity knocks.

First, let’s consider two lessons learned during the art recession of 1990-1994.

1) The art players in the coming bear market will be different from those in our most recent bull market. Soon, you’ll find your opportunities amongst those who were formerly known as frustrating potential collectors, slow-on-the-trigger and waiting on the sidelines.

In the stock market, these buyers are referred to as "contrarians," individuals like Warren Buffet who advocate buying when commodities go against both grain and conventional wisdom. When talking with potential buyers, tell them you’re on the lookout for buying opportunities. If a previously latent buyer responds to this pitch, you may have hit pay dirt.

2) While many big dealers today have amassed significant debts, they have not fallen into the trap of leveraging their inventory, as many did in 1990-94.

In the art boom of 1987-90, dealers used their inventory as collateral against loans with exorbitant interest rates. For those who survived, this trial-by-fire lesson was not one easily forgotten. When prices were high, a dealer was able to flip artwork for a quick profit within days. When art prices deflated in 1990, the same dealer still had 19 percent interest payments on the now inflated price of his inventory. Dealers who leveraged their inventory watched the value of their artworks fall precipitously, sometimes by as much as 80 percent. These works became unsalable, unless at a significant loss.

Now, let’s fast-forward to 2008, where other mousetraps may have already ensnared a few art dealers.

1) No one will contest that art fairs have been crucial to dealers’ successes over the past six years of the art market boom. In a bid for visibility and sales in an ever-more-crowded art arena, many marginally capitalized galleries have felt compelled to participate. The only problem? Art fairs are expensive, and as the competition for clients heated up, marginally capitalized dealers piled on unprecedented debts.

If participating in an art fair necessitates roughly $50,000 in overall expenses, a dealer would need to sell at least $100,000 worth of art to justify the costs incurred by showing at even a medium-sized art fair. Such outstanding sales for every one of the hundreds of galleries at a fair would be frankly impossible.

2) For dealers competing in the upper echelons of the art market, even repeated art fair appearances were not enough. These dealers have needed money, too, but for galleries: bigger, fancier, constantly expanding galleries. While the biggest dealers may not have financed over-priced inventory as they did in the 1990s, they may have financed large-scale construction projects that remain uncompleted in today’s sharply declining market.

And finally, this is where you might come in. If you’re a smaller-scale yet prudent player, your positioning may be highly favorable for a few reasons.

1) With little to no debt, small dealers possess the capital liquidity to buy the works which will soon be floating around the market for cheap. Those overwhelmed by debt will have fewer resources with which to secure these upcoming deals.

2) Although auctions perform exceedingly well in a bull market, prices will undoubtedly fall in a bear market. Collectors will once again turn to individual dealers when looking to sell artwork.

3) Small dealers have no doubt spent the past few years working tirelessly due to the enormous competition. In the late 1980s, big dealers grew complacent; everything sold, and the money just rolled in. Same in the early 2000s: established dealers sold art almost effortlessly. Today, the bigger dealers will be tempted to sit on over-priced inventory and wait for a market turnaround that may never come.

What does this mean for you, the small dealer? Less competition and great possibilities for triumph, as long as you abide by a few basic tenants of advice.

So, how does a younger or less-established art dealer turn current conditions to his or her advantage?

1) Call each and every dealer and collector you know and ask what they need to sell fast. The more people you call, the more underpriced inventory you will find. First find the inventory, and then find the client.

2) Clients in the near future will not necessarily be those who participated in the bull market of 2002-08, so don’t look for the obvious collectors. Call potential collectors--the people who have always been value-oriented but got discouraged every time prices ramped up after an auction.

3) Call periodically about a particular piece if it interests you. In many instances, dealers and collectors will need reality checks as time passes. Works will not sell and art market players will gradually lower prices. Making yourself known as an interested party only increases your chances of being notified early about discounts and price drops.

4) Remember that there will always be art collectors and art dealers--only the landscape will be altered dramatically in the long run. Periods of restructuring in any market are among the best times imaginable for a smaller contestant to stake a claim for control. You too can be a major player after the shake out, if only you play your cards right and stay the course.



Takashi Murakami's Tongari-kun, 2003, was bought-in at Phillips de Pury & Company's Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 18, 2008 in London. The work was estimated at $6.5-$8.4 million.


Gerhard Richter’s Claudius, 1986, was bought-in at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 19, 2008 in London.



Art Basel Miami Beach’s December 2007 edition attracted a record of 43,000 visitors.



The 42nd edition of Art Cologne in April 2008 suffered from diminished attendance numbers and slow sales.



Andy Warhol’s "Skulls," a collection of 10 silkscreened canvases, was sold at Sotheby’s London on October 17, 2008 for $7.6 million against an estimate of $9.3-$12.9 million.



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