Art market

There has been a softening in the middle-range of the art market

Percentage rates are down in many areas for the first half of the season


Private buyers are being more cautious and dealers are wary of buying stock in a falling market. There is no demand for the mediocre, with the bottom lots attracting no bidding at all.

The top end of the market is holding up, providing estimates are reasonable, as November’s contemporary and Impressionist sales in New York showed. There is a distinction between a collectors market where the objects will not be available on the market again for some time and for more ordinary objects. Modern prints for example have performed badly this year as you can always postpone buying until a later date.

Auctions with high-quality lots in any category are still performing well. Nineteenth-century European painting has been exceptionally vulnerable this year in London with Sotheby’s June sale only 34% sold by lot, but, a sale of Dutch nineteenth-century paintings at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam on 26 October was 90% sold by value and last month sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York achieved some record prices (see p.53).

Christie’s German and Austrian sale in London 8 October was 86% sold by value and made three artists’ records. Christie’s New York had a very poor Arts of France sale in October, only 66% sold by value (see p.56), but this was followed by Sotheby’s French furniture sale on 5 November with two lots selling for more than $2.7 million.

The collapse of the Far Eastern and Middle Eastern market for wine has had a dramatic effect on the auctions where estimates are now much lower and bought in rates higher.

Watches and jewellery sales are down 20% on last year. However, specialist, single-owner collections of jewellery are still very strong. The Whitney auction of jewellery at Sotheby’s New York on 19 October was 93% sold by lot (The Art Newspaper, No.86, November 1998, p.58). Islamic works of art, where Middle Eastern buyers are important, have continued to perform well, since this is a specialist collectors market.

Sales of Chinese and Japanese works of art have fallen dramatically (see p.52). Over the year some mixed owner sales have achieved percentage sales as low as 30%-40%. There is a marked difference in performance between specialist, single-owner collections and general auctions. Some of the latter have been forced sales from Japan and have done exceptionally well. A collection of Japanese miniature arts auctioned at Sotheby’s London in June was 96% sold by lot. A collection of Ukiyo-e prints at Christie’s New York on 27 October was 97% sold by lot.

The Korean market has collapsed. Christie’s New York sale in June was 15% sold by value. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have postponed further auctions in this field. However good things will sell even in this area: Bonhams achieved £397,500 for a Korean moon jar on 16 September.

In the UK Modern British art has performed well this year, although Christie’s sale on October was a disappointing 53% sold by value. However estimates for the top lots had not yet been adjusted for the current economic climate. The Hiscox sale on 3 December (see p.53) will be a good indicator of how strong the market is.

Irish art has gone from strength to strength thanks to the presence of extremely wealthy Irish collectors.

Christie’s established a very strong market with their new format contemporary art sale in London in April. This suffered a backlash in October, with only 57% sold by lot and value. It was a market heavily dependent on young City buyers who lacked confidence following the stock market crash and fears of redundancy. The Saatchi sale on 8 December will be an important indicator of how strong the contemporary auction market in London is.

Christie’s have also been very successful in the European House sale market. The Fürst Reuss Collection totalled nearly £2 million and Schloss Herblingen over £3 million. Old Masters and good continental furniture have also held up well in both the UK and America.

In the collectable market the ceramics of Clarice Cliff go from strength to strength; next year Christie’s South Kensington are holding three specialist sales, as well as a new classic Art Deco sale. They achieved two world records for film posters, “The invisible man” fetching £36,700 in September, while the James Bond sale in September made nearly half a million and was 98% sold by value.

In New York American painting has faired exceptionally well. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales were up 150% in the first half of the year. The market is also strong for American furniture and works of art and American decorative arts. Christie’s are holding their first specialist sale devoted to Tiffany on 10 December. The photography market has expanded dramatically, with Christie’s New York sales totalling more than $10 million this year.

In the UK British buying, both private and trade has remained strong. The US had noted an increase in European buying as Europe came out of the last recession and also due to the greater exchange of information between the European and American markets, a trend which has been going on for some years.

North American buyers are still very strong. South American (Mexican and Brazilian) are among the very richest buyers in the sale rooms. Problems in the South American economy have so far had little effect on their purchasing power.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The world is wary'