Last fall, after the London contemporary-art auctions were surprisingly upbeat and were followed by lively auctions of Impressionist and modern art in New York, a dealer told me that the sales went so well because “everybody got tired of being depressed and started spending money to feel good again.”
How good is the feeling in the art market now that a Picasso has been sold for $106.4 million and a Giacometti for $104.2 million—both at auctions—and even higher prices have been reached in private sales?
“We’re genuinely surprised about how robust the market appears to be,” said Edward Dolman, chief executive officer of Christie’s. “It’s not just the top end of the market that is strong. It has much more depth than we’ve seen in recent times.”
Neal Meltzer, a private dealer and former head of contemporary art at Christie’s, put it this way: “The art market has become a market other markets look to, to see what the wealthiest people look to.”
“It’s more mature,” said a dealer.
“It’s smarter,” said another dealer.
“The universe keeps growing,” said a curator.
“It’s still a little crazy,” said a collector.
William Ruprecht, Sotheby’s CEO, said, “As things get better, people with wealth come back into the art market and it gets better faster than the overall economy. And when things deteriorate, our business deteriorates even faster than the global economy. It’s faster on the way up and faster on the way down.”
Auction houses see things differently than galleries, according to Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries in New York.
“They have a few nights a year for their major auctions,” he said. “We have people who are looking and shopping and buying and we are buying and selling all year. The auctions represent a tip of the art market visible to the press and the public. We are aware of a surge and an ebb, but it’s not as high a contrast as the way auction houses see it, because our businesses are different. It all depends on the material. It’s the same market—things are getting better, but we just look at it in a different way.”
Howard Read, co-owner of Cheim & Read gallery, said, “We’ve come out of the lowest point. There’s more activity not only in lower-priced works of up to $50,000 but also in seven-figure works.”
Collectors, dealers, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and consultants were interviewed by ARTnews correspondents in 22 countries for the 20th annual ARTnews200 and the Top Ten, our lists of the most active collectors.
“China continues to be unbelievably important,” said Ruprecht. “The growth in wealth and interest in art in many categories is quite remarkable. They have become very active all over— in Hong Kong, New York, Paris, London. They’re buying art, houses, diversifying their assets.”
Dolman agreed. “The growth is exponential,” he said.
There are, of course, many kinds of collectors, as Walter Benjamin, the critic and essayist, wrote many years ago. “Moreover, in each of them an abundance of impulses are at work,” he wrote.
What are the impulses today? Findlay, who has sold works to many of the ARTnews200 and the Top Ten, said, “There’s a love of art, a desire for social prestige, and a hankering for investments. They may go in with a mercenary gleam in their eye but wind up loving art. Connoisseurship sometimes follows.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.