PostHeaderIcon Is It Safe Yet To Buy Art?

BigLegsDon'tCry0108This year’s edition of the Armory Show, held earlier this month in New York, was what one attending art adviser called “American Idol for the visual arts.”  Visitors to the main show on Piers 92 and 94 also had 11 satellite fairs, including The Art Show at the original Armory, Volta, Pulse and The Independent, to explore. The Art Newspaper estimated that it would take more than 64 hours to spend 5 minutes at every presenter sampling the art.

An end-of-fair assessment pictured a successful show with record attendance, strong sales and, as importantly, a spirit of renewed optimism. A Danish dealer sold an Edvard Munch with an asking price of $6 million while, at The Art Show, a Joan Mitchell sold for $3.5 million minutes after the opening. The Art Newspaper reported that the Armory-Modern show on Pier 92, in its second year, had drawn a large number of museum curators from MoMA, Washington’s National Gallery, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie and the Philadelphia Museum to view much high quality art for sale.

For me, what I found most enlightening was less the art than a high-powered panel on Saturday, March 6th, organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) and chaired by its president, the gallerist Lucy Mitchell-Innes. Its title was “A Committed Vision: Collecting in the New Economy”.

The panel consisted of Edward Dolman, CEO of Christie’s International,  Melva Bucksbaum, a long-time collector of contemporary art along with her husband, Robert Mnuchin, dealer at L + M Arts, Candace Worth of Worth Art Advisory and William Goetzmann, who studies the art market at Yale’s International Center for Finance.  They all agreed that the market was in a new phase, struggling to emerge from the bitter ashes of 2008’s economic meltdown and a euphoric period marked by record sales, sky-high auction prices and a mood of irrational exuberance.

Overall, the panel’s remarks reflected a more cautious current mood: more realistic expectations amid signs of recovery from a period of binge buying and a painful morning-after hangover.

Two closely-related questions seemed to be on the minds of the audience in the packed room: Has the market finally hit bottom and is it a good time to buy?

Goetzmann opened by saying that the notion of the art market as immune and separate from the art market had taken a hit. Major collectors, many of whom had come from the hedge-fund industry, sharply curtailed their buying with some even selling works to cover Wall Street losses.  The art market now appeared, he said, to be in a pause period prior to recovery.

(In support of the panel’s remarks, a report released this month by Dr. Clare McAndrew of the research firm, Arts Economics, showed that the United States’ share of the art market declined from 46% in 2006 to 30% in 2009 and that the United Kingdom’s 29% share had contracted almost 30% by 2009 as well. The player that gained share was the Chinese art trade which moved from a 9% market share in 2007 to 14% two years later.  The banking crisis had an immediate impact at the auction houses with buy-in rates (art that didn’t sell) by auction houses at 45% at the end of 2008, double the figure from 2007.)

Dolman noted that the current recession is very different from that of 1990-91.  Twenty years ago, he said, there was a “total lack of interest in contemporary art”. Now, there is real interest in that market, due in part to an influx of new Chinese and Russian buyers.

The realization that art can be a “real asset” was voiced by Mnuchin.  It plays a greater role in such newer markets as Middle and Far Eastern nations.  These players see art as a way to “shape a new culture and aesthetic”  wholly apart from the frenzied competition for a very limited inventory of Old Master works still in private hands.

Worth contributed that “urgency and volume is gone”.  She called last year’s period between April to June “the death knell time”.  Several panelists said they saw both younger and seasoned collectors returning to the fold.  The younger demographic is returning more slowly and is much more price-point conscious.  The long-time collectors are returning but showing a preference for Tier A art by Old and Modern Masters.

The market is in an “artist-driven” moment where brand names and those just below the top tier are holding value and selling while the market for mid-level artists remains soft.  Dolman mentioned that Ronald Lauder’s $135 million purchase of a Klimt painting and the recent, record-setting $104 million price for a Giacometti sculpture has “recalibrated the value of top-tier art”.

So, is now a good time to buy?  For some artists, the answer is “Yes”. Goetzmann sees now as lumpy times in the market. Yet, he cautioned against sitting on the sidelines. One “can miss an incredible opportunity” because great art only comes to market at certain, unpredictable times, usually via death, debt and divorce.  In order to strike when that rare opportunity comes along, he said, “You have to be invested full-time so you can enjoy those periods”

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