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Published 12/01/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Art market trends

The Miami Art Fair has surely reached its zenith now that Karen Wright, the formidable Editor of Modern Painters, has given her approval, having previously disavowed its lurid charms. Certainly, 'Art Basel Miami Beach', to give it its full title, needs the Basel imprimatur. It is good to learn here that, as Wright stated recently in The Observer, at Pace Wildenstein's enclave, a 'pile 'em high' strategy was in force, where 'a gallery with some of the biggest spending power in the world and a stable including such greats as Robert Rauschenberg, looked like a cash-and-carry'.1

Is there, then, a space problem in the week-long Miami fair, or is this just the conventional effect of high-value/low bulk in art works? Maybe, after all, we are moving into that final market planning stage. High value/high bulk = nil marginal cost. Does this provide a portent for the fact that, as the last Financial Times of 2006 describes it, the 'Modern art bubble keeps on rising'? As Susan Moore reports, 'It is a salutary thought that New York's autumn auctions of impressionist, modern and contemporary art alone broke the $1 billion barrier'.

One notable sale was Ronald Lauder's June success in acquiring the famous 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I' by Gustav Klimt for, it is believed, $135 million, making a record price for works of art. There was also the widely reported 'private' sale of Picasso's 'Le Rêve' for $139 million (unfortunately the sale was cancelled when the owner put his elbow through the canvas in a wild gesture). Then followed a drip painting by Jackson Pollock, 'No 5, 1948', for all of $140 million. The hands were shaking and cuff links flashing - all private sales. There were no tills ringing here; just deal upon deal, with the knowing super-rich recognising that this was actually the time to sell rather than buy. Not that this recognition affected what appeared to be a sellers' market, attracting from the wings secretive, well-loaded buyers.

Key factors benefiting the auction houses themselves have been the flood of new funding from Russia, China and the oil-rich Middle East (previously the latter sheikhs were only interested in paintings of horses, their traditional status symbols in reality). But now, with Christie's trying things out with their planned Dubai sale in May, the cycle seems set to repeat itself, with more 'Miami'-type art fairs (perhaps linked to sober European cities of culture and art exchange) burgeoning in turn.

Where does this all leave the museums and galleries under trustee or public control? The new price indices have given boards and committees new challenges. On the one hand, their existing stock has usually rocketed in value (except those works now under suspicion for having been confiscated by Nazidom from Jewish families before the war - grandees such as Lord Lloyd-Webber have been caught by such histories. Lloyd-Webber, or rather his not-so-arms length charitable foundation, in attempting to take profit from Picasso's 'Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto' in that presumed seller's market at Christie's in Manhattan in early November, had to see the work withdrawn for such fears). On the other hand, museums now have to fight an increasing losing battle for publicly assisted funding support. Witness the dilemma of Tessa Jowell, grappling with the escalating cost of the London Olympics as Minister for Sport and Culture, while doling out funds to national institutions, not only to aid acquisitions, but also to stem the flow of important works to overseas buyers. She had also found time to pay off the Chairman of the UK Olympic Delivery Authority, Jack Lemley, with the sum of £150,000 in return for his signing a gagging order.

Clauses in bequests and picture donation deeds to museums often forbid the sale of the same works at later stages. But the museums may have to abide by a different set of 'ethical' criteria simply to survive. This process might be called freshening up the stock, but it will leave a bad taste in the curator's experience, and the scholarship upon which good curatorial decisions are reliant may be eroded. One possible ruse of curating, as will already happen in the Edinburgh Festival next year, might be the regrouping of works of all periods 'thematically'. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is exhibiting in May (those under 12 years old not admitted) 'The Naked Portrait', and portraits of nudes of all ages will be included. Works covering (or uncovering, but not discovering) Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Christine Keeler and Tracey Emin will be shown alongside the statutory nudes of Lucian Freud and Stanley Spencer. There seem to be no royal nudes available, but maybe their time, as a genre, will come, hastened by these same art trends.

One thing is certain - through 2007 the Art Boom will continue apace. The new hazards are those of 'provenance' (as above) and of forgery (hardly new, other than in the readiness with which contemporary and modern art can be copied and passed off). As always, the hazards of the global economy remain, with an increasing number of imponderables. The new markets are thought to be still too shallow to be reliable enough for a marketing infrastructure with staying power to build up. And what of the old markets? The famous Sevso hoard of 14 pieces of fabulous silver from Roman times has been aired at Bonham's (last October). The Hungarian government now has a legal claim on its British 'owner', who acquired the silver in the 1980s, that the silver was illegally exported in the late 1970s. Perhaps the Sevso hoard is now to be pitched into the international arena as a political football. Weigh in with a gagging order, Tessa.

Michael Spens

Reference
1. Wright K. Art costs and here's where you pay. The Observer, 17 December 2006.



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