Art is not selling like it used to. Auction houses have had a rough second half of the year—mostly in the sale of contemporary work—and galleries have been forced to lay off staff and make unprecedented staff budget cuts. Still, there are sections of the market that are holding steady.
These are not the areas one might think—the glossy contemporary art that is still selling at booze-soaked events like last weekend’s Art Basel is dwindling, while obscure works by Old Masters (i.e. all European painters from about 1400-early 1800 that you may never have heard of) continue to appreciate in value. In this treacherous time, conservative works are retaining their original prices, while avant-garde pieces can’t move stock. The more modern the art is, it is being discounted, if sold at all.
There is a distinct pleasure that comes with bucking whatever is currently hot and instead opting to own something that is of classic and indisputable value.
Despite the poor auction sales in contemporary art, dealers put on happy faces at the champagne train known as Art Basel Miami Beach. Primary sponsor UBS was still holding its annual beach party for a VIP cast of hundreds, replete with an oyster bar adorned with ice sculptures. Not to be outdone, luxury airliner Net-Jets made its mark in the sand by displaying its name alongside that of Alex Katz, the guest of honor for its opening night soiree, in glitzy HOLLYWOOD sign-like capital letters.
The following evening, the stream tumbling down a pyramid of Krug champagne flutes inside a private party at the Raleigh hotel suggested that the art market’s glass was not only half-full, it was overflowing. Who cares if it wasn’t actual champagne being poured?
The Krug party included Pharell Williams, the new owner of a $78,000 Murakami sculpture entitled "Gigantic Plush Flowerballs", along with Marilyn Manson and Marc Jacobs. The following afternoon found Jay-Z and Beyonce strolling the fair's floor, ultimately commissioning sculptor Aaron Young to produce a duplicate of his recently sold "fenceMiami", a 255-by-96-inch schoolyard fence cast in 24 carat gold.
There was a substantive cause for optimism at the fair— the reports of actual sales. In the weeks leading up to ABMB, many dealers were expecting the worst. The prevailing thought after the depressing auction results of Modern and Contemporary art at the New York auction houses in November was that the so-called “bubble” of the art market had burst in the wake of economic meltdown.
Such fears were only exacerbated by the tepid business reported in London at Frieze, the UK’s major Contemporary art fair, and troubling news from some of the market’s major players. Sotheby’s seems to be the hardest hit as of late—the company has seen its stock value plummet over the past year, and recent announcements include the loss of over $20 million in auction guarantees, and upcoming layoffs and salary reductions for its staff.
Major galleries seem to not have fared much better. Longtime dealer Pace Wildenstein cut 18 of its 146 employees in November. Such news, however, seemed comparatively dry to the venom of an in-staff email sent out by art world overlord Larry Gagosian during the same period. As reported by Flash Art Online, Gagosian’s message was unapologetically clear: “If you would like to continue working for Gagosian I suggest you start to sell some art….The luxury of carrying under-performing employees is now a thing of the past.”
Hubris notwithstanding, the contemporary art market is probably not in jeopardy quite yet for megadealers like Gagosian—still, most agree that it will be a shell of what it has become. This was never a bubble that was going to pop, it was a balloon that has now deflated.
One of the reasons behind the panic comes from the fact that contemporary art has stopped selling well at auction. Yet the international rise of the art fair has produced a commercial powerhouse that liberates collectors from the time-sensitive restrictions of the bidding room. The ability to bargain at an event like ABMB affords a commercial flexibility that is particularly beneficial in an atmosphere of reduced expectations, something which was not reflected in Christie’s and Sotheby’s pre-financial crisis estimates on lots during the November sales.
On the other hand, the tempered buying mood at ABMB responded accordingly. Collectors took their time making purchases, less hampered by the dilemma of a debated work being snatched up in less than an hour. Others opted for no-brainer decisions, investing in the well-established names of modernism, like Picasso, Chagall, Warhol, and Basquiat.
Fittingly enough, the prototype for this selective collecting approach was displayed across the pond just a few days earlier inside the auction houses, during the London sales of Old Master paintings at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. These sales were largely seen as anomalous success, defying the market’s downturn. Traditional works are still selling big at auction, where buyers are more comfortable bidding high on proven quality.
On the evening of Tuesday, December 2nd, Christie's sold 80% of its lots-the highlight being a recently unearthed portrait by Giambattista Tiepolo, which at over $4 million, more than tripled its initial estimate.
Sotheby’s sale the following evening produced more pleasant surprises. Lot 35, a minute, 16th century portrait of the prosperous Italian banker Bindo Altoviti, by Girolamo da Carpi, a relatively minor painter from Northern Italy, was given a modest pre-sale estimate of £200-300,000. Yet due to its exquisite quality and market rarity, the picture sold for over ten times its estimate, going to an anonymous telephone buyer for £3.1 million pounds.
Part of the reason that these Old Masters are enjoying such consistent demand is that it comes from a smaller crowd of dedicated collectors, where connoisseurship trumps trend and speculation. This is art that appreciates gradually, and lacks the instantly recognizable brand of a Hirst, Koons or Warhol, which inevitably attracts a larger pool of work flippers and status seekers. The trophy hunting collector of Old Masters is of a different ilk. As seen in a record setting sale last year, they will pay $37.5 million for a portrait of Lorenzo d’ Medici that may be unfamiliar to some. Those that have been paying attention, however, will know that it was painted by Raphael.
And while the prestige of a name in an Old Masters certainly increases its value, its beauty and rarity is of equal importance. In the case of the Da Carpi success, Inés Nieto, a private Old Masters dealer based in London observed the work’s debut, having not appeared on the market recently, was “technically stunning…Some parts had very bad restoration but the bits that were original, like the face, just blew you away.”
Admittedly, the Old Masters scene is undoubtedly less exciting than its modern counterparts--white wine, grey hair, and tweed suits don’t really come across as desirable alternatives to last weekend’s crash course in decadence. Nevertheless, there is a distinct pleasure that comes with bucking whatever is currently hot and instead opting to own something that is of classic and indisputable value. A picture like the Da Carpi isn’t one that is going to blow one’s houseguests away like a golden calf in formaldehyde will. Nevertheless, it can be enjoyed, for the simple fact that it is a beautifully painted picture. In these days and times, such integrity is refreshing.
James Wilentz loves Old Master paintings as much as he has loved hip hop. After eschewing a career in the music business, he now runs oldmastersnewperspectives.com, a website dedicated to insightful coverage of the art, which he sees as undervalued. He currently seeks to cultivate interest in Old Masters with a younger generation of collectors—by explaining their connection and resonance with contemporary art and our lives today, and by showing how many great works are still accessible and affordable. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.