Scott Reyburn moved up his normal publication schedule to offer a summation of last week’s sales. But the responses he got from market participants seem hard to parse. Take this from one art advisor who tells us that uncertainty isn’t the barrier to selling, it’s the lack of guarantees.
“The market has definitely shrunk,” said Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser in New York. “But that isn’t a result of sellers not wanting to sell in an uncertain market, but of a lack of spectacular guarantees” that flush out the best works. “There’s a cause and effect,” she added, explaining the absence of big-ticket works in last week’s auctions.
But guarantees only exist to removed risk—another term for uncertainty—from the sales equation. Reyburn and Cromwell don’t tell us what the real impediment is, if not uncertainty. Could it be that those who own art don’t need to sell at all? In other words, without a guarantee locking in a price too attractive to pass up, the sellers just aren’t selling. If that’s the case, it only further confirms that guarantees don’t inflate the market, they subsidize it.
Another head-scratcher is this comment on the Impressionist and Modern market that suggests all of the great works in that category sold during the last decade and a half have been donated to museums and will never return to the market:
“There just isn’t the quality left out there any more. All the great pictures are in museums,” said the London dealer Alan Hobart, who was at Christie’s Impressionist and modern evening sale on May 12 to see a square 1919 Monet, once part of a rectangular waterlily canvas, sell for $27 million, the top Impressionist price of the week.
A more likely scenario is that demand has narrowed. In 2007, there was broad demand for a variety of Impressionist and Modern works that were snapped up by emerging market buyers. Many of those buyers have had reversals of fortune and many others have migrated in their tastes. The Old Master and Impressionist markets seem to struggle not with quality, as we saw last year with three Modern works setting nine-figure prices, but with volume. The market structure gets truncated which seems to squelch demand. That in turn makes it difficult to attract supply to the market.
Finally, there’s been great deal of chatter in the art market suggesting the May sales would have been a shock to the system without the $100m in purchased by Yusaku Maezawa. But others point out most of his purchases had underbidders, sometimes more than one. So the sales might have happened just at a slightly lower level.
“They were lucky to get that Japanese client; otherwise, it could have been a different story,” said Judith Selkowitz, another adviser in New York. “But the fact is there’s still a lot of money around. Buyers are just a lot more selective. It’s good to rebalance, and it’s healthy that everything isn’t running away.”
Josh Baer was also quick to point out in his newsletter this week that Maezawa bridles at the depiction of himself as a neophyte shopper.
Contemporary Art Sales: What a Difference a Year Makes (The New York Times)