Here are our main takeaways from last week’s market events in London—Frieze Masters, Frieze London and the auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. These are generalized remarks (which means, of course, that there are exceptions).
Talk of change
There is talk of a correction in the trade, but that presupposes change across the board, whereas the art market is not monolithic—and what we’re seeing is potentially more extreme. Beginning to shape our industry in profound ways is the continuing bifurcation between the top (works, dealers and artists), and everything below.
Shifts in supply
On the secondary market, the highest quality works of art keep going up in value. (This doesn’t include objects touted as top-level, but which are in reality almost there.) While supply for the most choice material is as tight as ever, we see signs that people are beginning to eye their inventory for works below that level. People are beginning to trade out of lesser works, perhaps recognizing that they’re only going to get more difficult to sell. Nobody is expecting the market for a mediocre anything to improve.
Primary market strong, for some
Dealers who represent great artists in developing parts of the market or who are solid players in the primary market at the upper level are doing very well—they’re making strong sales. While this varies from artist to artist, there is a consolidation and increasing demand.
In contrast, the middle of the market is far more challenged than people are indicating. Those middle-market dealers need the fairs—it’s where the action is—but many are suffering: the costs can be prohibitive and, with so many events, fair fatigue is real. Some galleries are going for broke to try and get over the hurdles. But, there will be attrition over the next few years.
The announcement of the closure of Andrea Rosen’s gallery space earlier this year opened the floodgates and we’re expecting something between a big wave and a deluge to follow. Those swells will wipe away the markets for lots of artists. Some of them weren’t necessarily great. Others are good and show potential. Some artists in that number are truly great, but unfortunately, not shored up by capital and with no effective links to the buyers who drive up value. There seems to be no safe harbor for them in the current market, which is focusing on the top.
There is no doubt that if you overprice average pictures, you won’t sell them. If you overprice even rather good pictures, buyers might still balk. There is increasing price consciousness at all levels.
Challenges = opportunities
On a related note, the market is soft at several price points, for example, in the $75,000- $300,000 range. One could argue that the difficulty is really all the way up to $1m, but especially under $500,000.
This is to say that there are lots of opportunities for those willing to take some risks and do some homework. Few buyers in the current market are prepared to seriously engage with artists whose work hasn’t yet been given a market (or museum) imprimatur, which means there are some potentially great artists being completely overlooked.
People don’t want to jump first. There were several occasions during the auctions when phone buyers seemed to be hesitating, waiting for someone else to make the first bid against the reserve. A similar trend is playing out across the galleries: there has been consolidation of interest around certain artists, and many collectors are reticent to make their own, fresh judgments.
Put simply, people are chasing the same things, and the next phase of the market will be defined by the extent to which buyers gain confidence in their commitment to artists whose work might not yet be appreciated by everyone else. The market is greatly in need of broadening its definition of valuable and important art. Having said that, we are beginning to see new pockets of interest opening up.
October hasn’t traditionally been a major auction season but it is a significant market moment in London, and so the houses have attempted to build up the size of their sales over the past decade. It is becoming clear that, while the London October sales are solid affairs, it’s in New York in November and May that the fireworks really fly.
There were some notable trends to emerge. Several markets are on the rise, including that of Cecily Brown, who is showing strength on all fronts. There is a growing appetite (again) for works by male artists associated with the 1980s such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Peter Halley, Richard Prince and Albert Oehlen. The market for Howard Hodgkin, who has been widely accepted by the Brits as a national treasure after his recent death, is also going up.
Wade Guyton at the Serpentine was a reawakening for many. The exhibition, “Wade Guyton: Das New Yorker Atelier, Abridged” (until 4 February 2018) reinforces a new level of range and shows that he is among the most significant painters of his generation.
With the increase in the number of fairs and the globalization of auctions, to quote Elvis Costello, it’s getting mighty crowded.