This is the first of a four-part series from Art+Auction magazine in which key art-market players weigh in on the future of the field.
Given how frequently the word uncertainty comes up in discussions of all things financial these days, it is surprising that a panel of market experts would find consensus of any kind, and even more unexpected that they would coalesce around an essentially buoyant outlook. Yet confidence is the most common attitude struck in the following interviews.
Auction specialists and private dealers see room for virtually limitless sales records, as long as top-notch material remains at hand. Gallerists believe that passion is still the animating force, the bedrock for dealers and their best customers alike. For others, new opportunities abound in emerging territories, from the Middle East and Southeast Asia to the digital realm and the nascent art-fund industry. To paraphrase one veteran, maybe most of us who got involved with the art business are just optimists by nature.
Of course, notes of caution sound in the following excerpts as well. Southern European governments risk stifling the art trade — or driving it underground — with onerous luxury taxes. China is at a crossroads, and its players will need to commit to higher standards of professionalism if its markets are to continue to grow. And more than one expert here believes there are too many fairs.
Taken together, these sketches from varied corners of the art world depict two coexisting planes. In the foreground, garnering the headlines, is the arena where those who buy for love and investors who buy for security converge in pursuit of the best. In the background is a larger field of players endeavoring to expand the art world outward rather than upward, by reaching new audiences in new ways. Both groups seem pretty happy about where they are right now.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS
I’m optimistic. More and more often art is looked at as something that gives great pleasure hanging on your walls but also as a good asset class—a good place to put some of your money. Collectors are looking for great works. What I saw this past year was that clients are price sensitive and quality sensitive, but the higher you go, the more quality sensitive they are. If you show somebody something really amazing, then price is not so much an issue, but if the quality is not A-plus, it needs to have the right price, at least in the private market.
At the lower end, you might see peaks in certain artists and periods. But that can be from one or two individuals who can change a whole market for a period of time. They might compete for a few pictures to fill the gaps in their collections. After that, nobody else is there to follow suit, so the prices have to be reevaluated. Knowledge of who buys and why is key.
Similarly, sometimes at auction you’ll see competition and prices achieved that you would not achieve privately, but that’s not a reflection of an entire market. There was that Delvaux that made a huge one-off price [Paul Delvaux’s Les Cariatides, 1946, sold at Sotheby’s New York for an artist-record $9 million last May]. But this was the result of two Russian phone bidders who knew who they were up against and just decided to compete. If you don’t know that and just see the price, you think Delvaux’s overall market is doing very well, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The people I’m dealing with are looking for the classic pictures and I’m not necessarily seeing major shifts in that taste. Surre-alism is slowly becoming more desirable, but it’s not everything in Surrealism; it’s still the pretty side of it. In Magritte’s market, for instance, everyone wants a blue sky, but that’s not all there is to Magritte. He has much deeper and more complex language, especially in the early paintings from the late ’20s to mid ’30s. That period is so fascinating and rich in meaning and iconography, yet the early period is still totally undervalued and misunderstood. That might change in the next 5 or 10 years.
— Emmanuel Di Donna, a former worldwide vice chairman at Sotheby’s, is a partner in Blain | Di Donna, which opened last year at the Carlyle hotel in New York.
MAKE IT MODERN
There is one message from the market that is crystal-clear: It’s not about Impressionism or contemporary, it’s about modern and postwar. Last year we saw a celebration of the 20th century.
Anything of quality from that period made a record price, whether it was Picasso, Max Ernst, or any modern movement, it just went crazy. There’s a real focus on modernity and anything that’s modern among international buyers, whether they are from the more mature markets like Europe and America or the newer markets such as Russia, the Middle East, and Asia. There is world-record potential every time works from the major movements of the 20th century are offered.
I am not sure if the interest comes at the expense of the art of the past decade, but it’s perhaps at the expense of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, although Cézanne, as the father of modernity, is going strong. The Impressionist market is more difficult to judge because quite frankly there has been a decrease in the quality of the works available. You can’t judge a market by its secondary material.
On the European side, there’s economic uncertainty, which means that unless there’s an estate or a real motivation to sell, it’s hard to get people to consign major works. They feel their money is better vested in a painting rather than in cash right now. There is less opportunistic selling than there was in 2007 and 2008. The caution is not because of the prices realized, but more about what to do with the money, so people are holding on to what they have.
Still, even second-tier 20th-century works—say later Léger, not from the 1910s or ’20s, and Chagall from later years—are fetching high prices. Today there is a developed, homogeneous, international market geared toward the modern. The success of every sale now comes down to five or eight quality works and whether these works are modern enough. If they’re not, you’re in trouble. If they are, you have a great sale.
—Thomas Seydoux became chairman, Impressionist and modern Art, at Christie’s in January, after two years as international head of the department. He is based in London.
CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON
I saw the market declines in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, but I don’t see anything like that at the moment. In Europe, 2011 was a very good year. We saw many new, younger collectors arrive, looking not only for young artists but also for established ones.
Art as an investment is becoming more important here. Those collec-tors go mostly toward blue-chip works and the “hot list.” ?That is a bit silly, because just as with the stock market, going in the same direction as everyone else is profitable in the beginning, but not in the long run.
Looking ahead, I don’t believe that under normal circumstances the euro crisis would affect the market, but the tax situation in countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece will affect it in 2012. Italy raised its sales tax on art to 21 percent, which is scandalous. And the authorities are looking to step up enforcement.
Art fairs are also making things increasingly difficult. The impor-tant argument remains that the fairs cater to busy collectors. But the expense is crazy. Thirty-five years ago, a booth at Art Basel was SF12,000; today it’s SF120,000. How can smaller and younger galleries afford a fair like Art Basel Miami Beach?
—Karsten Greve has galleries in Cologne, Paris, and St. Moritz.
THE ELUSIVE COLLECTOR
The whole system of the art business has become unforgiving and can be a brutal place, so what I am looking forward to is growing the global web of relationships that we have been putting together—linking artists, collectors, and museums. That’s why we’re always in search of the people who are still really passionate about art. That may sound corny but in fact, the reason this all works is because there are collectors who need to be the owners of a particular work of art, they are old-fashioned people who can’t stop themselves from buying something because they’re in love with it. Not so many years ago, the alternative—the hunter, the investor, the speculator—didn’t exist.
It’s the search for faithful art collectors and connoisseurs that drives our expansion. The goal with the new locations is to be able to plug into more places. You’ve got to be around the corner from them in order to be part of the mix. You have to remember the whole art world is about the collector and the artist. The rest of us are arrayed around those two actors.
—Marc Glimcher is president of the Pace Gallery, founded over 50 years ago by his father Arne. The firm, which operates four spaces in New York and one in Beijing, will add a London gallery this year.