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The New York Contemporary art sales made just a bit more than $1bn combined last month. So, even if the auction houses had not continued to hold all of the New York May sales in a single week, the Contemporary art sales would still have been a gigaweek. Does it matter? Probably not. There has been a great deal of talk in the press about the art market being in a slump based upon the dubious benchmark of the market’s absolute peak in 2014.
You can see from the chart above the two years where the Spring sales of Contemporary were effectively identical and loomed 35% higher in total value than last month’s sales. But you can also see that matching sale values from year to year has been effectively unheard of. For many reasons, not to mention the art’s heterodox qualities (that means few objects that are sold are alike,) sales rarely match up from year to year. More to the point for those looking to normalize art sales levels, those peak years were the culmination of five previous years of rapidly rising art values.
Even a passing familiarity with economic and historical events will explain why that same period was anything but normal. The slumping art sales of 2016 were still reasonably close to the peak years of 2007 and 2008. But now that the sales have recovered, we can also see some similarities to the previous pullback.
One can’t help but notice that once we divide the dozen or so years into two distinct periods with the peak years at their center, something interesting occurs. After the 2008 peak in the art market, sales dropped precipitously below the preceding four boom years. This was a period of global financial fear and it is more than to be expected that wealthy persons would want to husband their cash for future uses instead of exchanging that currency for works of art.
Nonetheless, there were still buyers of art at auction in 2009. As the world’s central bankers coordinated action to benefit asset values, art seemed to get caught in the updraft. The year after, in 2010, the same sales were slightly ahead of 2006, a boom year all its own but still a pale comparison to what was to come in 2007 and 2008. The following year, the sales were up markedly again.
Taking that as our cue, let’s look at the second half of the time period to see if there are any assonances. Sure enough, the pattern seems to be beginning to repeat. Two peak years in 20014 and 2015 give way to a retreat in sales volume in 2016 that is both dramatic and falls below the level of the four previous years. The next year the recovers to slightly above the results of four years prior.
Does that mean next year will show a significant increase eventually in new highs two years hence? Who knows. These patterns are based upon far too little data to make any sort of prediction. The point here is to simply acknowledge the pattern of dip and recover was seen previously. Obviously there were large and impactful macro-economic forces active during this period that may have created the pattern more than any internal dynamic of the art market.