When Christie’s reported its 2010 sales, one of the few areas to be virtually flat was its department of Russian art. At a time when the whole art market was sturdily recovering from the financial crisis, with Asia growing, for example, by 111%, Russia only managed an anaemic 4%.
The reason is not that Russians have dropped out of the market. On the contrary, Russian buyers have been astonishingly powerful in recent sales, but instead of buying their own art they have crossed over to buying international brand names. Roman Abramovich has famously snaffled high-priced works by Bacon and Freud, and Russian buying power is regularly demonstrated in Manhattan and Mayfair salerooms. Recent sales thought to be to Russians include Picasso’s La Lecture, 1932, sold for £25.2m in London in February, and Delvaux’s Les Cariatides, 1946, which made $8m in New York last month.
“Clients in new rich economies generally start by buying their own, 19th-century art: they have grown up with it, and feel comfortable with it,” says Sotheby’s Lord Poltimore, who knows the Russian market particularly well. “And there is a patriotic aspect to collecting local art. But as taste develops, collectors branch out and look outside their own frontiers.”
This shift to buying on the international arena is certainly the hope and aim of Western art dealers, who see the burgeoning economies of Bric countries as new Eldorados. But apart from Russia, are collectors in China, India, the Middle East and Latin America making this leap, and what are the factors that trigger it?
The key elements, according to dealers and auction houses, are:
• the growing number of private art spaces started by high-profile collectors and their influence as “taste-makers”
• the rise of the major art fairs
• the increasing internationalisation of dealers
• globalisation and the internet, spreading information further and faster than ever before
Adam Sheffer of New York’s Cheim and Read also cites museum groups as significant. “They have had a big impact, as they travel the world attending fairs and biennials, and making contact with local collectors,” he says.
Today’s brand-name culture is another key. Just as new rich economies are buying branded luxury goods, so they are, or will be, buying internationally recognised artists. But it would be wrong to conclude that all these regions behave in the same way. In fact there are striking differences between each one.
Western auction houses claim that Chinese buyers are increasingly buying Western artists, and it has been reported that a Chinese buyer bought Picasso’s 1932 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for $106.5m at the Brody sale last year—although many doubt this. “Everyone is sending people to China or opening in Hong Kong, because when the taps open there, it will be an immense market,” says Matt Carey-Williams of Haunch of Venison. But today the strongest sales in China are still of traditional Chinese art, or modern works by Chinese artists, and there is a good supply of both. “When the shift happens, it will be huge,” predicts Poltimore, but it doesn’t seem to be happening on a major scale yet. And some wonder whether the immense clout of China will eventually have a reverse effect, shifting our value systems away from our artistic heritage towards theirs.
On the other hand, many of today’s collectors in Latin American countries have already crossed over to buying international artists, a shift that seems to have taken place within the last decade. The presence of taste-makers and the fashion for private art spaces, as well as the influence of art fairs seems to have been crucial. Brazil’s Bernardo Paz (Inhotim) and Mexico’s Eugenio López (Jumex Collection) in particular, have deeply influenced collectors in their countries. “Eugenio really was a forerunner, he started collecting international artists from the 1990s,” says Sheffer. Many other Latin American collectors say that visiting Fiac, Art Basel or Art Basel Miami Beach triggered their interest in international artists.
Everyone had been expecting India to be the “next big thing” after China, but so far there are fewer signs of Indian collectors shifting to international names, despite the country’s huge population and 55 billionaires in 2011 (Forbes). “It’s still a very closed market, the collectors aren’t ready yet,” says Carey-Williams. However, Poltimore says that at the top there are “truly international Indian collectors, but they are very discreet”. Only now are a few private collectors opening art spaces, such as the Poddars, so perhaps watch this space.
The Gulf states
This region presents a very different picture. While China and India have a huge potential pool of buyers, the wealthy Gulf states have just a handful of collectors, essentially members of the ruling families, but have breathtaking resources thanks to oil and gas revenues. With highly ambitious museum programmes, they are already major buyers of works in the modern and contemporary fields—the Qatari ruling family famously bought the Rockefeller Rothko (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose, 1950), as well as Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, 2002, and is thought to be a major buyer of Bacon and many other blue-chip artists. Much has been written about the motivation for these museums and collections, from creating attractive new cultural hubs for the post-oil era, to a desire to establish their countries on the same cultural level as the West, to a more cynical “because they can”. The Gulf has virtually skipped the “domestic focus” buying phase and gone directly to the international market, partly because there is a very limited supply of local art. The exception is Qatar, which has a large collection of Arab and Middle Eastern artists in the newly opened Mathaf.
Just as some of America’s wealthy industrialists built up great art collections in the 19th century, so the 21st century will see other regions build up major holdings. The hardest trick for dealers and auction houses to pull off will be to predict exactly where that will be, and when, and to deliver accordingly.