Art market holds up, surprisingly

Artbeat column no 445 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 20 April 2009

How has the art market been doing? Since the financial crisis last year and the onset of the international recession people have been braced for a bumpy ride. It’s interesting to track what’s happened.

The day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy the Damien Hirst sale opened in London marking up sales of 70 million pounds (US$107.8 million), a notable high point for contemporary art.

By December some commentators were seeing this as a market pinnacle and were saying “Bad days behind us, worse days ahead.” (The Economist 24/12/08.) They thought the art market would never be the same again and that while there had been some peaks since September, such as US$7.2million realised for a Seurat painting in Paris on the 3rd of December, these were being seized upon by market optimists and dramatically reduced sales volumes should be expected.

There was some evidence of that around the turn of the year and many were expecting the worst. Some thought old masters might particularly suffer while others thought the most recent of the contemporary would be first to fall. It was expected the Yves St Laurent sale in Paris in February would be a test.

That was held at the Grand Palais on the 23rd of February. It included modern painting, Art Deco furniture, Roman torsos, Chinese bronze animal heads – from the sack of the Summer Palace in Beijing – as well as a ready-made by Marcel Duchamp and and an Henri Matisse still-life painting.

The ready-made - a perfume bottle titled La Belle Haleine - made 8.9million Euros while the Matisse soared to 36million Euros. The whole sale realised US$484million, making it the biggest single owner sale in history.

This was followed by the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht in the Netherlands on March the 12th. This is a regular big event on the calendar and included old and new, east and west, cutting edge video installations and Egyptian antiquities – among other things. In particular it included the Bicknell Album a large book of photographs of Scottish Churchmen taken by D.O. Hill between 1843 and 1847. It documents the personnel of the schism in the Scottish Presbyterian Church which produced the Free Church of Scotland, a matter of more than passing interest in Otago.

A Degas pastel Toilette Matinale fetched 10million Euros and a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens of a young man realised 5million Euros. The fair took on the feeling of a party and Conrad Bernheimer, Director of the famous dealership Colnaghi’s, said “If there is a crisis it must be somewhere else”.

Also in March the Gianni Versace sale in London, expected to realise 2.8million pounds in fact made 7.4million pounds. It included a striking 18th century portrait by Zoffany, publicised before the show which led to its identification as a work stolen some decades earlier.  It was withdrawn from the sale and is now on the way to being reunited with its former owner. 

All this hasn’t entirely dispelled apprehension. Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Modern and Contemporary South East Asian Art sale in early April saw the volume of sales markedly down on the 2008 event. That realised HK$1.8billion while this year’s made only HK$691million (US$89million). But commentators did now recognise that good prices were being made by the rare and the good; that there was no falling off for the local contemporaries; and that the sale’s specially local focus had proved a marketing success. Hong Kong paintings did particularly well.

So what does this mean for us in New Zealand?  Our country was already in recession before the financial crisis really hit overseas in September last year. At that time America and Europe weren’t in recession. Now they are. At that time the financial crisis hadn’t really affected New Zealand. Now it has.

Our own market was doing very well in 2006. In 2007 it was not so vibrant and there were mixed reports in 2008. Nationally volumes of sales may have contracted a bit but the market hasn’t simply collapsed and neither have we seen the slump some expected in recent and contemporary works.

The Auckland auction house Webb’s market report for 2008 listed one Bill Hammond which realised NZ$130,000 and another which fetched NZ$290,000 both in April last year. A Don Binney painting sold for NZ$70,000 in June while a set of Laurence Aberhart photographs realised NZ$30,000 in July. There were substantial sums also paid for pre-modern works such as NZ$180,000 for a Goldie and $110,000 for a watercolour by Horace Moore Jones of Simpson and his donkey.

There’s been some stress nationally and locally but there’s also a kind of subterranean market which seems scarcely affected by the storms raging overhead and overseas. Art may or may not be a good investment but it’s certainly a hardy perennial. Some buy for love whatever the money.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times