‘A Different Ball Game’

The top ten collectors on our list.

Click to see the complete Top 200 list.

Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, two of the most prominent artists on the planet, recently discussed the future in a new book, Requiem II, that will be published this fall by Other Criteria. Hirst is one of the company’s founders.

Prince: “Do you have any predictions about the coming year?”

Hirst: “Yeah, we ain’t gonna sell as much, art shows are gonna get better now the focus shifts away from money…”

Of course, Prince and Hirst, as well as other artists, ain’t selling as much. And what they’re selling for is not as much as it used to be.

By last November, “everyone knew the music had stopped,” one dealer told me. Since then, we have heard things like, “People were buying with their ears instead of their eyes.” Or: “Contemporary art is overheated,” which really means that those sensational prices can‚ keep going up and up and up.

The number of billionaires last year fell to 793 from 1,125. The number of Russian oligarchs, which includes some of the art world‚ biggest spenders, has halved to 49, according to the Russian magazine Finans.

Some wealthy people were said to be more cautious about spending ostentatiously. The Economistreported that an upscale fashion Web site offered the option of having designer outfits delivered in a paper bag.

“A lot of buying is psychological” one dealer, who has observed collectors for 40 years, told me. “People need to see other people spending. And some people get tired and bored about not spending money.”

The total for the spring auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company in New York was $421.2 million. Christie’s led with $248.9 million, followed by Sotheby’s with $160 million. Phillips took in $12 million. Last year‚ spring sales totaled $1.6 billion.

Collectors, dealers, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and consultants were interviewed by ARTnews correspondents in 22 countries for the 19th annual ARTnews200 and the Top Ten, our lists of the world’s most active collectors.

“The art market is alive and well,” said Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer and worldwide director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department. “Hype” said a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal.

So what’s the story? Hirst is right, but there are reasons to be cheerful.

Eli Broad, who has been on the Top Ten list since it started, told me recently: “History shows that the art market follows the stock market and the real estate market. I thought the recent contemporary auctions were pretty good. Every artist is different. You may see continued softening with some artists. When you have works of great quality, there will always be buyers who will want to step up to the plate, who will buy in good times and bad.”

Neal Meltzer, a private dealer and former head of contemporary art at Christie’s, said: “There was pessimism before the recent auctions. Following the auctions, there was a sigh of relief and a renewed confidence in the market. You now have more discerning buyers. Even though the volume is way down there are still many potential buyers. The bubble was really a seller’s market. They kept asking for bigger and bigger prices and were getting it. Now it’s a different ball game and a buyer’s market.”

Broad was one of the bidders at a Sotheby’s auction last May. He had joined the bidding for Alexander Calder’s 1934 Ebony Sticks in Semi-Circleat $2.5 million. Bidding paused at $2.55 million. Meyer, the auctioneer, asked, “All done?” A telephone bidder went to $2.8 million. Broad bid $3 million. A phone bidder raised it to $3.05 million. Broad paused. “You don’t strike me as someone who gives up,” said Meyer. Broad gave up.

I asked Broad why he had stopped bidding on the Calder. “I go to auctions knowing I won’t go higher than a certain amount,” he said. “We bid on several other things we didn’t get because they went beyond what we were willing to pay. This one went more than I thought it would go.”

Then Broad, who started out as an accountant and whose fortune is estimated by Forbesat $5.2 billion, added: “Generally, I have discipline.”

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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