A European collector we know writes in response to some of the recent stories about the impending burst of a presumed art market bubble:
I, for one, do not see any “bubble” as far as post-war art is concerned. What you have are basically micro-markets which are tightly controlled by a few players, or not.
I am not talking only about the Warhol or Basquiat markets, which are well known and whose inner workings are no longer mysterious. It also is the case for Fontana, Calder, Twombly and now Thiebaud, Stingler, Houseago (just some examples)…
You don’t see much when you attend an evening sale, because most of the people who make up the audience are starry-eyed gawkers. So what you get from those are mainly gossips (who presumably bought what, who presumably sold what…).
Now, if you attend a much less glamorous day-sale, that’s when you get a clearer picture. That’s when you see that the ones pushing up Calder are always the same two or three dealers. Most of the artists who make it to auction are backed by several players, collectors or dealers (auction houses in the case of second-rate Richters…) who are often heavily invested in them, but not always.
This is true for many micro-markets in the art business. There is a group of prowling Belgian dealers, on the other hand, who will never let go of a Fontana or a Twombly if they are in the $500,000 to $1.5m price range.
Get past the small group of artists who have key players supporting the market and you get a better sense of the market. Take Philip Guston: he is not backed by anybody. So when a Guston comes to the market, be it good or average, they usually barely make the lower estimate (unless the estimate is unrealistically low), but they quietly sell.
So be it manipulated or not, beyond the evening sale bling, the market is working pretty smoothly.