The New York Times has been pushing the idea, for a year or so, that the global art market must be facing an inevitable reckoning. It began with 2016’s slowdown in auction volume. The paper continues with its steady questioning of whether buyers will want art in the age of Trump.
The problem with the Times’s single-minded premise—the art market can only be binary, up or down—is that the paper is blinded to possibility of more complex turns in the global trend toward placing value in works of art.
“Art is a transcontinental commodity,” said William Weston, a specialist dealer in modern prints, who was at Phillips on the evening of Jan. 19 for the auction house’s eighth “Editions” sale of prints in London. “Nationalism won’t harm its trading position. It won’t affect the market in New York or London. Americans won’t stop buying David Hockney because he’s a British artist.”
So it proved at Phillips, where the unique David Hockney print “Steps with Shadow F (Paper Pool 2)”, made in 1978 using the unconventional medium of dye-saturated paper pulp, sold by telephone to an American collector for a top price of 629,000 pounds, or about $774,000, just above the high estimate.
Phillips’s total of £3.7 million was its highest yet for an “Editions” sale in London. A remarkable 94 percent of the 218 lots, offered in day and evening sessions, found buyers, with 35 percent of the works selling online. Bidders hailed from 38 countries.
The uptick in the print market—which may be an anomaly or the beginning of a trend—and the stirrings in the Modern British art market, which The Times seems to view in opposition, might be different effects of the same dynamic. Namely, the art market had pushed so far toward the very top end in the period from 2010 to 2015, that a natural internal dynamic would be for the emphasis and interest to switch to the other end of the spectrum, finding pockets of undervalued quality.
The Times acknowledges this without actually recognizing the dynamic:
More problematically, the market for works by young international artists aren’t as much in demand as they were three or four years ago. With collectors wary of overpaying for unknown quantities, dealers are struggling to make the low price points for emerging art pay for booth rentals at major art fairs.
A global slowdown in art buying as an effect of Trumpian global conflict and confusion is an entirely plausible scenario for the art market. But if that is indeed the case, we won’t see the effects for another few months as we go through the Spring auctions and art fairs.
Based upon the evidence adduced by the Times and seen in other places, the shift from chasing new names to looking for prints or previously established categories looks like rational risk taking and market rotation.
Calling it a sign of market health might be taking things too far. On the face of it, though, it would be equally hard to call it a signal of impending problems.
London and Brussels Art Events Reveal Challenges of the 2017 Market (The New York Times)