“Widespread chill” in art sales has auction houses changing their tactics

posted by – 01/31/16 @ 12:58pm

Picasso’s ‘Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)’ (1955), which broke global auction records when it sold at Christie’s last year.

Art sales have been making headlines for a few years now due to their exorbitant totals for works from big-name and newcomer artists alike. According to one estimate by Citi Private Bank, the average annual growth rate of the global art market since 2000 lies around 13%. In just two consecutive days of auctions in May 2015, Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined reported sales topping $1 billion. At Christie’s, Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” cost one investor a pretty penny – a record-breaking $179.9 million.

But the art market bubble does not appear to be expanding as quickly as it once was. According to the same Citi Bank report, annual growth rates are now hovering around the 9% mark. In the Wall Street Journal, writer Kelly Crow attributes slowing growth rates to “falling oil prices, volatile stock swings and China’s deepening economic woes,” among other things. When the stock market fluctuates and worries buyers, they are less likely to take risks with their investments. And like stocks, art values can vary widely and drop suddenly. Nonetheless, Kelly’s cited experts remain confident that the we will not see an art-market crash.

Auction houses, too, are paying close attention to changes in customer mindsets and purchases. For example, Sotheby’s will “focus on artists [they] know sell well,” rather than showcasing newcomers that are still foreign to buyers. More attention is being paid to guaranteed sales, making the practice of auction more “choreographed.” If that meets securing a bidder to appease the seller’s mind, many auction houses are ready to do that. While sales estimates are lower and some art values are decreasing, experts maintain a positive outlook since, historically, art has been a secure market in which investors can secure and protect their wealth.

As Edmond Francey, head of Christie’s contemporary sale this coming February, puts it: “Sometimes you need to reassure a market.” And until global markets generally stabilize, auction houses will be doing just that.

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