Given how frequently the word uncertainty comes up in discussions of all things financial these days, it is surprising that a panel of market experts would find consensus of any kind, and even more unexpected that they would coalesce around an essentially buoyant outlook. Yet confidence is the most common attitude struck in the following interviews.
Auction specialists and private dealers see room for virtually limitless sales records, as long as top-notch material remains at hand. Gallerists believe that passion is still the animating force, the bedrock for dealers and their best customers alike. For others, new opportunities abound in emerging territories, from the Middle East and Southeast Asia to the digital realm and the nascent art-fund industry. To paraphrase one veteran, maybe most of us who got involved with the art business are just optimists by nature.
Of course, notes of caution sound in the following excerpts as well. Southern European governments risk stifling the art trade — or driving it underground — with onerous luxury taxes. China is at a crossroads, and its players will need to commit to higher standards of professionalism if its markets are to continue to grow. And more than one expert here believes there are too many fairs.
Taken together, these sketches from varied corners of the art world depict two coexisting planes. In the foreground, garnering the headlines, is the arena where those who buy for love and investors who buy for security converge in pursuit of the best. In the background is a larger field of players endeavoring to expand the art world outward rather than upward, by reaching new audiences in new ways. Both groups seem pretty happy about where they are right now.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS:
I’m optimistic. More and more often art is looked at as something that gives great pleasure hanging on your walls but also as a good asset class—a good place to put some of your money. Collectors are looking for great works. What I saw this past year was that clients are price sensitive and quality sensitive, but the higher you go, the more quality sensitive they are. If you show somebody something really amazing, then price is not so much an issue, but if the quality is not A-plus, it needs to have the right price, at least in the private market.
At the lower end, you might see peaks in certain artists and periods. But that can be from one or two individuals who can change a whole market for a period of time. They might compete for a few pictures to fill the gaps in their collections. After that, nobody else is there to follow suit, so the prices have to be reevaluated. Knowledge of who buys and why is key.
Similarly, sometimes at auction you’ll see competition and prices achieved that you would not achieve privately, but that’s not a reflection of an entire market. There was that Delvaux that made a huge one-off price [Paul Delvaux’s Les Cariatides, 1946, sold at Sotheby’s New York for an artist-record $9 million last May]. But this was the result of two Russian phone bidders who knew who they were up against and just decided to compete. If you don’t know that and just see the price, you think Delvaux’s overall market is doing very well, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The people I’m dealing with are looking for the classic pictures and I’m not necessarily seeing major shifts in that taste. Surre-alism is slowly becoming more desirable, but it’s not everything in Surrealism; it’s still the pretty side of it. In Magritte’s market, for instance, everyone wants a blue sky, but that’s not all there is to Magritte. He has much deeper and more complex language, especially in the early paintings from the late ’20s to mid ’30s. That period is so fascinating and rich in meaning and iconography, yet the early period is still totally undervalued and misunderstood. That might change in the next 5 or 10 years.
— Emmanuel Di Donna, a former worldwide vice chairman at Sotheby’s, is a partner in Blain | Di Donna, which opened last year at the Carlyle hotel in New York