Will the pendulum swing back to traditional art?
The answer is bound up with economics, taste, supply and the global expansion of the art market
By Georgina Adam. Market, Issue 217, October 2010
Published online: 29 October 2010
Last month saw Paris’s venerable decorative arts fair, the Biennale des Antiquaires, fill the Grand Palais with an array of art and antiques: ormolu-encrusted 18th-century French furniture, gold-ground paintings, ancient sculpture, Tang ceramics…but also works by De Stael, Boetti, De Kooning and Murakami. The fair, once the haut-lieu of French decorative arts, has radically changed in its 50 years. This year almost half of the exhibitors—40 out of 87—were showing modern art or 20th-century design. This is a seismic change; no more than 15 years ago, the selling point for fairs like the Biennale was datelines that guaranteed that everything was over a certain age.
All this has been swept away by the headlong rush of buyers towards art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Now the heaviest media coverage and biggest crowds are focused on the contemporary art fairs: at this month’s Frieze, some 60,000 are expected to thunder through its aisles; another 40,000 will visit Art Basel Miami Beach (2-5 December), while Fiac in Paris (21-24 October) sees about 80,000.
But, common sense prompts us to think that all things are cyclical, and in the art market as elsewhere there is some sort of a “pendulum”. Over the last generation it has swung far towards the contemporary; will it, or can it, swoosh back one day?
The answer is bound up with economics, taste, supply and the global expansion of the art market. Academic, writer (and contributing editor to this paper) András Szántó says that taste for the modern generally coincides with times of economic optimism: he points to the late 1950s and 1960s as an example, when taste reflected confidence in the world of tomorrow. Another period of intense interest in contemporary art was late 19th-century Britain, a period of extraordinary economic expansion which threw up swathes of newly enriched merchants and manufacturers. Contemporary art sold for vast sums, but the boom didn’t last.
As in Victorian Britain, the profile of art collectors has changed today. The increase in global wealth (Forbes counted 937 billionaires in 2009) has brought vast new fortunes into the world, but these are largely self-made, and not inherited as in the past. “This new money doesn’t express itself in the way it did a generation before, its owners were not brought up with an appreciation of classical art,” notes Szántó.
A previous generation of art collectors might want to put together “period rooms” in which everything—furnishings and art—was from the chosen time frame. But today’s taste is very different. It is eclectic, mixing high and low art in what Szántó calls the “playlist” culture. “There are ultra high-net-worth individuals who roam the world looking for things to buy, a spark of inspiration, but it’s very difficult to predict what they want,” said Thomas Woodham-Smith of antique dealers Malletts.
Just as the wealthy used to build palaces hung with works to flaunt their wealth, so the billionaires of today commission headline architects to build them art spaces—for the contemporary art they will acquire in battle against other billionaires. Newly rich countries in the Gulf, in China or India want smart new museums to display their living artists’ work. All this is partly what has driven the market for today’s art, along with, it must be said, a strong speculative element. But to fill their art spaces, billionaires need supply—something which living creators and a new emphasis on multiples, can furnish.
However, many observers think that the global spread of new wealth may drive the pendulum back towards more classic art. “Just look at the Russian love of Fabergé and Empire furniture,” said Szántó, adding: “It’s not that the pendulum will swing back, it will swing a different way.”
But supply is a problem: for the pendulum to swing back, buyers will need inventory, and this is rapidly depleting. Even if collectors wanted to build up collections of classic art and antiques, they would find it extremely hard to do so today. “Most of the plums have gone,” said impressionist art dealer Martin Summers pithily. So prices, for the very best pieces, are being forced upwards, putting them out of reach of even very wealthy people. This is exacerbated by the economic situation: since the global financial crisis, art dealers have noticed a return towards more tried and trusted values. “I am seeing hedge-funders buying old master paintings now,” said art agent Robert Holden, citing as an example the UK-based financier Chris Rokos’s acquisition of Domenichino’s Saint John the Evangelist, late 1620s, earlier this year. The rich are becoming richer, he said, while lower down the economic scale discretionary spending on art has diminished.
This is why there is such inflation in the prices for the very best pieces, with the top fortunes battling for them. This is, unfortunately, bad news for the middle-market for art and antiques, which has suffered the most in the past two decades; here as well the financial crisis has eaten into budgets. So, while the good news is that, at the top end of the market for traditional things, optimism is in order thanks to new markets, the economic outlook and changes in taste, the bad news is that the mid-range will remain mired in the doldrums. Which is, of course, an opportunity: contrarians may well be tempted to snap up antique furniture, Japanese lacquerwork or Victorian painting while prices remain depressed.
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