Where Is the Art Market Heading? The 20th Century

Where Is the Art Market Heading? The 20th Century
Gustav Klimt's "Litzlberg am Attersee" (1914-15) sold for $40,402,500 at Sotheby's this past November
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

That, anyway, is the revelation of a story published in the February issue of Art + Auction magazine charting the top 10 auction records for 2011 in five categories.

I commissioned the story to find out what people were prepared to pay the big bucks for and was struck by how prominently the 20th century figured in the statistics: Only three of the ten top-selling photos were vintage, and only one of the top 10 paintings from the year’s Impressionist and modern sales had been produced before 1900. Design sales showed the same trend.

The statistics revealed that anything exceptional from the 20th century had the potential to set a record price.  I was so curious about this trend that I, along with other editors at the magazine and here at artinfo.com, decided to ask a dozen prominent art world figures to give their views on where the global art market is headed over the next year.

I am not going to reveal the views of our experts — you’ll have to read the March issue of Art + Auction to get the full story. But it is worth pointing out here as a kind of teaser that many of the experts we spoke with agree that the 20th century is now the most desirable collecting period. The 20th century, really? Didn’t that just end like 11 years ago?

Of course dedicated collectors are still shelling out for Old Masters and rare but increasingly modern Chinese ceramics. But what is new in of all this is that the huge prices for early modern and contemporary works, which bookend the century, have made many long-overlooked mid-century works suddenly seem both desirable and affordable: witness the bloated prices that were paid for Clyfford Still’s paintings late last year at Sotheby’s or the intense competition for mid-century design.

This intense market focus on 20th-century art and collectibles augurs well for those who have invested in modern and mid-century works. With quality material still available in these categories for purchase, an expanding pool of buyers is prepared to compete all-out to get the best. Not surprisingly prices continue to escalate — hence the records.

The experts we surveyed also noted that the market for 20th-century art is a truly global one, not merely for contemporary art but increasingly for modern European and American art as well. Artists from the last century — including select contemporary ones — have become brand names that signify taste everywhere from Tokyo to Paris, Beijing to New York. More collectors wanting the same things puts further pressure on prices.

There also appears to be a kind of consensus among global collectors that the value of 20th-century collectibles is a safe bet — perhaps far safer now than other volatile asset classes, from securities to real estate. More than just a work of art, a Gerhard Richter painting is perceived to be a stable long-term investment.

Until we get certainty back into the financial industry and people return to work both here and in Europe, I can’t see conditions for a widespread recovery at the lower end of the art market. There just aren’t enough people buying enough objects in all categories. Meantime, the action will be at the top end of 20th-century collectibles, where experts agree we are likely to see many more record prices for newly minted treasures. 

Benjamin Genocchio is editor-in-chief of Art + Auction magazine and ARTINFO.com