Bendor Grosvenor has an exceptional essay in The Art Newspaper on the Old Master market and what ails it. Nothing, says Grosvenor, that a little less grumbling and a lot more enthusiasm might provide. Pointing to the success museums have had in building an audience for art that is anything but ‘modern,’ Grosvenor thinks appearance of a declining Old Master market is really just increased volatility as dealers are squeezed out and auctions appeal to retail buyers.
The auctioneers’ rising strength has had unintended consequences, however, the most notable of which is increased market volatility. Auctions are an inefficient method of selling goods, especially when the approach is to gather hundreds of similar items, dump them en masse on to the market every six months and allow collectors only a few days to actually view them. In most other auction markets, be it cars or jewellery, a stable base of trade buyers exists to provide a floor for prices. But because today’s Old Master dealers are unlikely to bid on well-trailed pictures that “look up” (as the saying goes for anything on auction price databases), the end result is increasing volatility. Some pictures can wildly exceed their estimates if more than one collector bids, while others mysteriously fail to sell.
Aha, say the doubters: surely such volatility is proof of a slump in the demand for Old Masters. But there is, in fact, little hard evidence of a slump. I recently calculated the total Old Master “spend” at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in both London and New York for the past decade; to my surprise, it has remained constant, even when adjusted for inflation, with the average yearly total a healthy enough £258m. The figures reveal a recent shift in momentum from Christie’s to Sotheby’s, which has consistently increased market share, but overall there has been no boom and no bust.
There’s life in the Old Masters yet, as recent sales show (The Art Newspaper)