“Art market faces jittery times, despite Monets” was one headline. “Signs of weakness” was another. “Is the art market headed for a crash?” asked another article, with the comment that “the market has already cracked.”
If there were jitters, they disappeared. Cracks were hard to find. Instead of a downturn, there was an upturn. After all, how can you call May’s total of $1.57 billion in sales of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company chopped liver?
So where are we now? Collectors, dealers, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and consultants were interviewed by ARTnews correspondents in 22 countries for the 18th annual ARTnews200 and the Top Ten, our lists of the world’s most active collectors.
The consensus: it’s the age of the “I don’t care” bidder. They don’t care what a work of art costs as long as they get what they want. Or, as one astute observer of billionaires put it, “Say you’re worth $20 billion. If you buy something for $100 million, it’s like you’re taking someone out to lunch.”
Does that account for what some folks are calling the Handbag War at a Sotheby’s auction last May? The alleged scenario goes this way: two of the world’s top luxury-goods tycoons from Paris, Bernard Arnault (Louis Vuitton), who is in the Top 200, and Franí§ois Pinault (Gucci), who also owns Christie’s and is in the Top Ten, were bidding against each other for two works by Yves Klein.
Who got them? Philippe Ségalot, who advises Pinault as well as other billionaires, including Sheikh Saud bin Mohammad bin Ali al-Thani, bought two Kleins for a total of nearly $41 million. One went for $23.5 million, an auction record for a Klein. Was Arnault the underbidder? Did the Kleins go to Pinault? You won’t get a word out of any of them. ARTnewslettersources say the Kleins went to Pinault. One dealer was absolutely certain that the buyer was European. “Klein is admired and considered important by Americans, but most of his major works are in Europe,” he said.
The previous auction record for a Klein was $6.7 million at Christie’s in 2000.
Speaking of records reminded Martin Summers, the London dealer, of a collector who liked to make world records. “Once he asked somebody to make sure that he paid the world record for a painting,” Summers said. “He asked his friend to bid against him. If the bidding stopped at $900,000 and the record was $1 million, his friend would bid $950,000. Then the collector would bid $1.1 million. As long as he made the record he was happy. He was proved right some of the time because after he died, some of his paintings made records again.”
To Summers, the recent auctions showed that the best works “are proving to be as sound an investment as you can make these days,” but, he added, “it’s become somewhat like commodity trading. It’s difficult to know where it will go.”
What about the private art market? Eileen Kinsella reported in our May issue that annual private art sales, fueled by tremendous new wealth in Russia, Asia, and the Middle East, total between $25 billion and $30 billion, possibly three to four times the annual auction market.
“The ship sails on,” said Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries in New York. “The auction sales showed plenty of interest. We see the same things in the gallery. Most dealers will tell you that getting good material is much harder than selling it.”
What about the fact that some dealers are saying there is more caution now than six months ago?
“A degree of caution is essential to building a collection,” Findlay said. “Seize an opportunity when it arises. Be prepared to buy a work when it comes up for sale, but going into the market determined to spend every dollar you’ve made in the last year is not a sensible thing.
“A lot of different people are buying a lot of different things. But you can’t plot it the way you plot Volkswagens. No work of art is the same as any other work of art. Some people enjoy selling art to make money. Buy a work with the desire to keep it and enjoy it. Most people do that.”
OK, is the sun rising or setting?
“There are areas that could be vulnerable,” said one dealer. “Where? Some artists whose works went from $30,000 five years ago to over $1 million today—I don’t think that’s sustainable. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s not sustainable.”
“I’m not sold on the fact that the market is impregnable,” said Findlay. “It can tank tomorrow. If people are determined to find holes, they’ll find holes. It’s an uneven day-to-day affair. Meanwhile, there is more demand than supply for quality works of art.”
Ann Freedman, director of Knoedler & Company, put it this way: “The art market still has strength and muscle.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.