It is not often that we find ourselves agreeing with the International Herald Tribune‘s erudite but elitist connoisseur. But his recent round of exceptional sales does point to a significant saving grace for the art market these last few very troubled months in the world economy:
That art would follow a separate course in the current global crisis was bound to happen because a fundamental characteristic singles it out among all the goods that are traded. Each work is unique. One landscape by Monet does not equal another landscape by Monet and one Louis XV commode is not the same as any other Louis XV commode. The style, the condition, the aura derived from the weight of history or the lack thereof combine to give each one its specific set of characteristics that determine how desirable it is. And here is the factor that makes buying art fundamentally different from ordinary commercial transactions – desire, the combustible that fuels the art market engine.
These days, it is made more vivid by a sense of urgency as art supplies dramatically shrink. If you pine for a Lanvin suit, you will still be able to buy another one a few days later. If you are dead keen on a landscape by Monet, instant action is advisable because the opportunity of getting it may never recur.
The last-chance syndrome accounts for the otherwise inexplicable performance of some works of art observed on the auction scene from New York to Paris as the economic outlook kept darkening last fall.
Just when we thought we might have to backtrack on some of our previous ribbing of the great scholar, he reminds us that he still hasn’t been able to master basic logic. No sooner does he make a solid case for the pricing power of extraordinary works, when he reverts to inventing motives for market action:
the double reality of the new market. It is bullish where the occasion warrants, but stalls wherever speculative intentions are suspected.
Over the last two years, inflation had effectively been whipped up by auction houses because dwindling supplies made finding merchandise a priority and led them to accept speculation-driven consignors’ demands for ever higher estimates and reserves. This worked as long as the market was invaded by newcomers loaded with quickly made money who played with art at auction as others enjoy a game of poker. They took at face value anything printed in saleroom catalogues, including estimates, and were naïve enough to ask the specialists who had negotiated the estimates how far they should go when bidding. They would applaud at auction when prices went through the roof.
With most of the happy-clappy amateurs driven away from the auction arena by the financial panic, the game is back in the hands of those who buy art in full knowledge. Prices have dropped by 20 or 30 percent in categories where speculation was manifest, and will go further down, but outstanding objects are holding up at every level.
Connoisseurs Take Back Control of the Art Market (International Herald Tribune)