Experts explain where the values are—and what to avoid—in the current market.
“It’s the best time to buy,” said Don Rubell, who with his wife, Mera, is on the ARTnews list of the world’s top 200 collectors.“I’d buy till it hurts right now,” said Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.“If you’re liquid, this is the time when there are bargains,” said Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries in New York.“There are unbelievable opportunities,” said William Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chief executive officer.What’s going on? Where have these folks been lately? After all, the Wall Street bankers, the Russian oligarchs, the hedge-fund poo-bahs, the casino tycoons, and the Asian billionaires no longer have so many billions. It’s no secret that the art bubble has burst.The sales of Impressionist, modern, postwar, and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company last November yielded a total of $803.3 million, less than half of the $1.75 billion total of November 2007. No one is convinced that private art sales, which annually reach between $25 billion and $30 billion, will climb that high this year.Last year Leslie Waddington, the London dealer, told me that the good times had to end. “Everything is cyclical,” he said. “I just don’t understand what’s happening.” He added: “I’m expecting trouble, but I have been expecting trouble for a year and a half, and nothing has happened.”Some weeks ago, he told me, “The telephones aren’t ringing.”However, Roland Augustine, president of Luhring Augustine and president of the Art Dealers Association of America, is “very positive” about 2009.“As painful as this contraction is, it’s a welcome time for the art market because the inflationary conditions in the market in the last few years have seen their final days,” he said. “I welcome that. Collectors welcome it. The speculation, at least for the moment, has seen its demise. We have moved away from appreciating the language of art toward treating art as a commodity, and as long as you treat it that way you lose the value of the language.“I think we will also see better art produced. I think in times like these artists will spend more time considering the art they are creating, instead of being driven to produce art for the marketplace. Artists in many cases have spread themselves very thinly over the last decade.”The last time there was trouble in the art market was in the 1990s. “I was at the art fair in Basel,” said Rubell, who with his wife established the Rubell Family Collection as a museum of contemporary art in Miami. “It was so empty that you could roll a bowling ball down the aisles.”Two years ago, at the height of the art boom,you could not roll bowling balls during the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. The fair organizers usually arrange for very rich collectors—dealers are not invited—to attend in advance of the official opening. They line up at the entrance and are permitted to come into the fair two hours before collectors who are not so rich. This gives them a head start in seeing works for sale at the various booths.“They weren’t exactly grabbing works off the wall, but it was something like a stampede,” said one observer. “It was a feeding frenzy,” said another. One private dealer disguised himself, managed to get on the line, and hurried to various booths so he could advise his clients what to buy.So if the good times have ended, how do you buy and sell works of art in a recession?“The current economy provides opportunities for collectors who are really serious about acquiring works of art at the highest quality level, which may have seemed impossible before,” said Marzio. “Now is the time to go up in quality. Everyone always says they buy the best, but they don’t.”“The real collectors are still buying—but less,” said Pierre Levai, president of Marlborough.Raymond J. Learsy, a prominent New York collector with his wife, Melva Bucksbaum, agreed. He said, “I’ve always felt that the art market marches to a different drummer than financial markets. People who are really interested in art are a little bit like smokers. You just can’t give it up. It becomes intrinsic to your life and you go and delve into resources that you might not have thought you had to continue collecting.”Rubell told me that some of the best pieces in his collection were bought during the last recession. “It takes courage to buy at a moment like this, but you get rewarded very much,” he said. “Things are available now. There’s more negotiating going on. Buy pieces from artists who are totally established, who have a track record, or buy from very young artists. There’s always a new generation of artists coming up.”Jay Gorney, director of contemporary art at the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, agreed: “It’s certainly an opportunity to look at the work of younger artists whose work may have been undervalued. It also gives you a chance to look at those artists who may not have realized huge prices or reached the popularity of some of their peers.”Findlay had another suggestion. He said, “Rather than look for things that may have diminished greatly because they went up quickly in value, look for works by artists who have had a steady increase, who have a track record from before the bubble. Avoid artists who may have risen enormously. I don’t think the market yet knows what those values might be.”He added, “People who have works of high quality are not going to give them away. And when they are forced to sell, there will be a degree of competition for works that are very good. Also, collectors are going to be more patient. They don’t have to make their minds up overnight.”One reason collectors no longer have to make a decision in a hurry is that the waiting list some galleries had for works by certain artists has disappeared.Chelsea art dealer Edward Winkleman offered advice on his blog on how to buy, urging collectors not to stop looking, “even if your art buying budget has been squeezed due to the economy…. Looking is free. I suspect many collectors cringe at the thought of an anxious young dealer swooping down upon them with desperate discount offers or pleas for any purchase, but it’s easy enough to be frank with such gallerists, saying you can’t make any purchases at the moment, but you’re still very interested in their program and wish to continue to see their new shows.”What about discounts? Winkleman says, “You can expect a much meeker response from dealers to your inquiries about discounts these days, I’ll bet on that. But focusing on discounts alone may not be your best means of securing that piece you want. Discussing discounts in conjunction with a long-term interest in the gallery program is your best avenue here.”Another tip: “Many young collectors may not know that most galleries are happy to work out some sort of payment plan.”Auctioneers have changed payment plans, too. They have said they would cut guarantees, stop offering bargains on commission charges to sellers, and tighten credit terms to buyers. Price estimates have also been revised.Museums, of course, have had to change plans, too. Some have made cuts in staff and reduced budgets. I asked Everett Fahy, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the European paintings department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, how museums have been affected during other periods of economic turmoil.“Some of the greatest paintings at the Metropolitan, including Andrea Mantegna’s The Adoration of the Shepherds, Jean Antoine Watteau’s Mezzetin, and Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, came to the museum during the Great Depression in the 1930s because people were forced to sell,” he said.I asked Rubell if the “feeding frenzy” will return.“Collectors are obsessive, compulsive, and competitive people who always like to get the best first,” he said.Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Ann Landi.