PAI’s The week in focus: Coronavirus casts a long shadow

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To say that the art market is in turmoil might be a major understatement, even though we have completed less than a quarter of the year. The turmoil, obviously, is the result of the new coronavirus that is leading to the deferment or cancelation of art fairs across the globe.

The latest, reported by the Financial Times, is Art Dubai that had been scheduled to open on March 25th but is now “postponed” to an unspecified date.Various presentations and displays are to take place in the city over the putative days the now-postponed conference.

In The Netherlands, The New York Times reports, The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) Maastricht Art and Antiques fair has opened, but to a subdued preview because of the virus. TEFAF Maastricht is arguably Europe’s most prestigious art fair organised by dealers, but even its prestige was insufficient to prevent the opening day’s attendance numbers dropping by almost a third from the same day last year.

But while the coronavirus is affecting art exhibitions, auctions and sales, is it simply another negative factor in a market that had already been plateauing in 2019? 

Take a look at the reports by the likes of Ocula.com, artnet.com, artnews.com and others that have latched onto the figures in what is seen as the authoritative Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2020 – figures which indicate a 5% drop in global sales of art to $64.1bn in 2019.

Of the major markets, only France appears to have bucked the lower trends recorded in the US, China and the UK. But while sales by galleries are reckoned to have risen 2% year-on-year to $36.8bn, those at public auction are estimated to have fallen by 17% to $24.2bn and the value of works that changed hands in private sales increased.

One set of figures that possibly underscores the trend is that reported by artnet.com. Last year private sales managed by Sotheby’s again passed the $1bn mark, while the house’s open-auction sales were $4.8bn.

Enough of numbers that tend to numb the brain and that, in reality, do not always tell us the underlying trends and fashions. Yes, while High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) can largely set the art market’s tone, it appears that millennials are increasingly important in the sector – probably hardly surprising as they are building their collections while their older counterparts are, if anything, selling. Though whether this is leading to a general shift in tastes is another matter.

The works most likely to be changing hands through private sales are, reportedly, those of the likes of Jonas Wood, Yayoi Kusama, George Condo, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kaws (also known as Brian Donnelly), and Alexander Calder. About half of Sotheby’s private sales are contemporary works, but the artists bringing in the biggest sales numbers, however, skew towards the more historical, such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse.

And then, as if to confuse the issue, the artists for whom Sotheby’s receives the most enquiries are reported to be Warhol, Kusama, Kaws, Basquiat, Calder, Picasso, Ed Ruscha, and Albert Oehlen.

Warhol: there’s an artist dead these past 33 years and whose name seems to keep popping up with increasing frequency. So, should one buy his works? Remember Mark Twain’s epithet about land: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” As Go London reports, four of Warhol’s screen prints, those of Beethoven, will be on auction at Sotheby’s on March 19th, with sales-price estimates ranging from £200,000 to £300,000. They were amongst Warhol’s last, created only days before his death. And if you are interested in other deceased Pop artists, at the same sale there will be works by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring, with a work by the graffiti maestro Jean-Michel Basquiat to add some spice.

Or perhaps your tastes are even more modernist, pushing Pop art’s boundaries. Then, you might turn to the article by the South China Morning Post on the works of Brian Donnely, Yayoi Kusama, Hirota Saigansho, Yoshitomo Nara and others who are helping create an art form out of toys. They are particularly in demand by buyers in the East, and their styles are being promoted by auction houses such as Phillips and Polly Auction.

Ask yourself which are the best art investments. Remember, it’s not just about whether the price of a work will outpace the stock exchange but is also about the years of pleasure ahead of you as you look at works gracing your own home.