The Art Market Is Not a Unicorn

by Paddy Johnson on February 12, 2016 Opinion

Peter-Doig, "The Architects-Home in the Ravine", 1991

Peter-Doig, “The Architects-Home in the Ravine”, 1991

Looks like people are getting more visibly worried about the market crashing. After last night’s Contemporary sale at Christie’s London brought back what artnet News  describes as a “middling” £58 million auction, Bloomberg ran a piece with the headline “Is the Top of the Market in Trouble?” noting a near 90 million dollar decline from last year in the collective top 10 lots of the Impressionist, modern, postwar, and contemporary London sales.  In 2015 sales totaled $249.24 million. In 2016, the total was $160.2 million. Meanwhile, Christie’s London has run a series of London auctions that hit only the low estimates.

Lock Kresler, a director of the Dominique Lévy gallery in London told artnet News that the sale was about the strength of the middle market, which in this weird world means art works priced in the low millions. And the results reveal this statement to be true; records were set for Joseph Beuys and Robert Mangold, and high prices were fetched for two Lucien Freud portraits and a David Hockney beach umbrella.  

That’s one sale, though, and its success does not necessarily lay out a road of middle market gold. And in fact, we’ve found that the words of professionals with skin in the game can often be more revealing then a single auction. Take Josh Baer, who in yesterday’s mailer parsing the Christie’s auction, took to reflecting on why people buy art. “Its not just business – its an emotional activity.” he wrote. “Some buy because they love art, some use it to feel good about themselves. These emotional needs are why the art market will not “crash”. Especially in down times an art purchase can make someone feel better, even if Wall st is tumbling.”  

That’s a nice feel good thought for people in the business of buying and selling art, but we’ve noticed these kinds of statements about teflon-type durability of the art market tend to emerge when it is weak. Anyone else remember Former Sotheby’s head Tobias Meyer describing the art market as “non-cyclical” in 2008, just before it crashed? Baer’s views are put a little more eloquently but just as distorted. Non-essential spending is always rooted in emotional purchases and we’ve seen all sorts of industries within this field crash. Art is not immune. 

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