PAI’s The week in focus: why it’s a buyer’s market

Lempicka Portrait of Marjorie (1932). courtesy of Christie's.

It never rains but it pours. Is that old adage about to be proven to be true in the art world? It was only a few weeks ago that art auctions were apparently promising a pedestrian 2020, particularly in China, where the art market was hit last year by the tumultuous political protests in Hong Kong and was still suffering something of a hangover as this year began.

Then, if that weren’t enough, along came the coronavirus to kibosh art sales and shows in the Far East.

Let’s start with the article by the French newspaper Le Monde, a publication hardly given to hyperbole – quite the opposite in fact. “The Asian art market has been paralysed by the virus,” the newspaper told its readers (in French of course) and went on to describe why Art Basel Hong Kong that was due to be held from March 19 to 21 had been cancelled. Along with it, the Art Central show has also been scrapped. And events are going from bad to worse. According to the likes of ARTnews the Gallery Weekend Beijing, China’s largest art market show and originally scheduled to take place in March has been “postponed” indefinitely and may well not take place.

And it’s not just in Asia. Sotheby’s, Bonhams and others have postponed their Asian sales that were scheduled as part of New York’s Asia Week. Take a look at the reports by Antiques Trade Gazette, Barrons, ARTFIXdaily and a string of other publications – they all tell the same story. There may, of course, be little logic to holding auctions when the market is slowing and when an important group of buyers will be avoiding crowded sales rooms.

The market is slowing and was already doing so before coronavirus appeared on the scene.  The New York Times hangs its analysis of the market onthe fact that David Hockney’s much-hyped and promoted Splash painting managed only to attract a winning bid at the bottom of the expected range at Sotheby’s. The Art Newspaper takes a broader view as the Christie’s contemporary sale last week collected its lowest sales total in a decade. A question asked is: Are would-be sellers not consigning their best pieces because the market is low? In another article, Artnet News also follows upon Phillips’s contemporary art sale which only raised a “middling” total.

Don’t misunderstand – some quality artworks are attracting active bidding when they are placed on the auction block. Take a look at the report by The Art Newspaper on the record price achieved at the Christie’s sale of Tamara De Lempicka’s jazz era painting of a Parisian night club soubrette. And don’t forget that while important works might not be appearing on the auction floor at present, many are being sold privately and at acceptable prices through the auction houses.

A point, it seems, is that works on sale are being ‘bought in’ by third-party guarantors, and sooner or later they will be released to serious buyers. It may not be a seller’s market at present, but it certainly seems to be a buyer’s one.