PAI’s The week in focus: Is it a buyer’s or seller’s market?

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As asset classes go, art is arguably amongst the more nebulous. Acquisitions are, often, driven by emotion, by the desire to have a work that one can see and from which the owner can derive regular aesthetic pleasure.

So, how does one avoid the charlatans, those who would have us buying pieces that are mere, near-term gimmicks – pieces that are passing fads or fancies? This past week’s article by Mutual Art, while focussing on the Los Angeles Art Fair – which attracts a host of exhibitors and galleries – helps guide its readers past pitfalls and traps set by the less-scrupulous for the unwary. As the article introduces itself, its author is: “… drawing excruciatingly sharp lines between trite imitation targeted at wealthy collectors and agents of beauty and creativity”. And, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “It’s clever, but is it art?”

And how, when it comes to selling pieces that might have been in one’s hands for decades, does one go about it? Aside from the obvious, there can be a world of difference between a seller’s or a buyer’s relationship with an auction house or gallery. Turn to the article by Artsy for an introductory guide to selling, a guide to choosing between entrusting an artwork for sale to an auctioneer or to a gallery. There are advantages and drawbacks to both, advantages and drawbacks that change as the art market itself changes.

It has been this balance between auction house and gallery at this stage of the art market which apparently determined that one of this year’s largest private collections would be handled by three galleries rather than by the three major auction houses that tendered for the business. The best and most-accessible articles on the sale of the collection of the late financier and long-term art collector Donald B. Marron are those of The Art Newspaper and The Wall Street Journal.

But there could be a sting in the tail as the Marron collection becomes available at much the same time as that of the divorcing collectors Harry and Linda Macklowe. The question raised is whether the coincidence of these two sales will saturate, at least for a while, the market for works by the likes of Picasso, de Kooning or Rothko. The fact that these artists figure in both sales may well have been a factor in the Marron family’s choice of galleries over auction houses.

No concerns like that over works by Salvador Dali. According to New Indian Express a single 1937 surreal work by Dali (Couple aux tetes pleines de nuages) that has never before been offered for sale will be on the Bonhams auction block on March 26th. Will its comparative rarity help the work exceed its pre-sale estimate of €7m to €10m? It is probably worth watching the sale’s outcome for an indication of where the top end of the art market is heading as fears of global recession churn.

The fact is that fears over coronavirus have led some of the main auction houses to delay their Chinese sales, as we mentioned previously. If you need reminding take a look at the reports by The Value and others.

That’s China. India, where the contemporary art market has only recently started to emerge from several flat years, is a different matter. Take a look at another report by The New India Express on Sotheby’s travelling exhibition of modern and contemporary works in Delhi by Indian artists prior to their auction in New York on March 16th. That sale hasn’t been delayed until June as is the case with most others scheduled for the house’s Asia Week Spring sales.

We are, of course, now moving into the weeks of modern and contemporary art sales with price estimates at levels that shouldn’t break the bank. There’s the Bonhams sale in London on March 12 – an eclectic assemblage of works that should appeal to all tastes and to all pockets. And the same goes for the Christie’s sale scheduled a week earlier, March 5th, in New York. A similar assemblage of artists, of prices and styles.

So, within the next three or four weeks we should have enough sales information to tell whether 2020 will be a buyer’s or a seller’s market.

Watch this space.