Art: The Prints Market Crumbles

It’s hard to judge the state of the art market by looking at auction results of unique paintings, precisely because they’re unique and you can always make an argument about why this or that particular painting did or didn’t sell at a certain level. So Deborah Ripley’s report for Artnet about the prints market, which is much more fungible, is invaluable — and shows just how bad things are, and how much capitulation is yet to come:

Both houses offered "Campbell’s Soup II," the portfolio of 10 silkscreens from 1969. The set at Christie’s, estimated at $150,000-$250,000, opened at $95,000 and drew no bids. At Sotheby’s, where the estimate was $200,000-$300,000, the lot opened at $110,000 and also elicited no bidding… (The top price for "Campbell’s Soup II" is $312,000, paid at Phillips de Pury & Co. on May 18, 2007.)…

This paradigm shift of prices had still not penetrated the dealer rank-and-file that participated in the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) Print Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2008. Although Sotheby’s failed to sell — for a second time — Picasso’s bellwether L’Egyptienne from 1953, which carried a presale estimate of $125,000-$150,000, the print was offered in two booths, both with price tags of $300,000.

The fact that Campbell’s Soup II had no bidders at $95,000 shocks me, I have to admit. Yes, the edition size (250, I believe) is reasonably large, but then again the art world is weird when it comes to supply-and-demand dynamics: the highest-priced artists, from Picasso to Warhol to Hirst, tend to also be the most prolific. This is one of the most iconic works of the 20th Century, by the iconic artist of the post-War era, and there just doesn’t seem to be any interest in it at all.

This bodes ill for next week’s Contemporary sales, I think — but we don’t have to wait long now. The best hope is that buyers of prints are not the same people as buyers of paintings, and that the painting-buyers have deeper pockets, are more committed to the market, and are less affected by the financial crisis. We’ll see.

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