So this season’s contemporary art auctions have come and gone: $143 million at Christie’s, $129 million at Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s wins the Best Quote Award, however:
Tobias Meyer, director of contemporary art for Sotheby’s worldwide and the evening’s auctioneer, called the market “passionate and deep,” adding, “People bid according to their wealth, not the market.”
It’s actually an interesting insight: the art market has become a bit like the housing market, where sellers look for price and buyers look for whatever they can afford. If it takes $95 million to buy a Picasso, and they have the money available, then that’s what the new breed of buyers will pay.
The contemporary art auctions didn’t have anything in that stratospheric league, although they had their fair share of multimillion dollar pieces. For me, however, it wasn’t the Warhols and DeKoonings which stood out: everybody knows they’re going to go for vast sums of money. Rather, I was very surprised by the seven-figure prices being fetched by (relatively) second-tier artists.
I love Robert Ryman, I have to say: his white monochromes are beautiful, classic works of art. But $9.6 million?! It’s worth noting that a classic Robert Irwin circle piece from 1965-67, which is just as beautiful and probably even more important in art-historical terms, went for “just” $441,600 in the afternoon sale at Christie’s. It’s true that the Ryman can be hung on the wall in an expensive house or apartment, while the Irwin really needs its own installation, but still the 2000% difference in price seems excessive.
In a world where it’s still rare to see female artists fetching seven figures, it was gratifying to see an Eva Hesse go for $2.2 million. Cecily Brown just failed to make the mark, fetching $968,000, but she’ll undoubtedly reach it soon, if she hasn’t already done so privately. But $1 million for a Lisa Yuskavage seems pretty crazy to me, I must say.
The Hesse, interestingly, was sold at Christie’s in 1992 for $93,500 — which works out at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 25%. Pretty good investment. The trick, of course, is to sell not only at a large profit, but relatively quickly, too. If you wait more than 50 years, then your CAGR is going to come down to the 10-15% range even if you sell for 400 times the original purchase price. On the other hand, 10-15% isn’t at all shabby, especially when you add all the emotional equity in there as well. If you have some post-war art which you aren’t particularly fond of, it seems that now could well be the best time ever to sell.
And to me. It’s manga for edjerkated people.
But then again, a million dollars for any painting is daft.
It’s no accident that the Hesse bought in 1992 has increased so much in value. Most blue-chip art sold in 92 has too. Back then, people were wringing their hands, complaining that the art market was “over” and would never recover. Dealers went bankrupt. Collectors sold in a panic.
From a financial standpoint, all you really need to do is buy and sell like a contrarian. Buy when everyone thinks it’s crazy to invest in art because the market is tanking. Sell when everyone assures you that the market is so strong that you could make an even bigger profit if you sold next week, next month, next year.
The sellers right now are extremely crafty in my opinion. In many cases, they’ll be able to buy their art back, for less, in the next recession.