Art Market

4 Shifts in the “Unpredictable Art Market” You Should Know About

Abigail Cain
Mar 4, 2016 10:27PM

A lawyer, a financier, an art advisor, and a journalist walk into a room… 

Installation view of Sims Reed’s booth at The Armory Show, 2016. Photo by Adam Reich for Artsy.

A lawyer, a financier, an art advisor, and a journalist walk into a room.

It sounds like the start to a bad gallery dinner joke. But at The Armory Show the topic of discussion was serious: “How to Optimize the Unpredictable Art Market.” In a testament to the topic’s immediacy, moderator and Financial Times columnist Georgina Adam admitted that her panel was originally called “The Rising Art Market,” until warnings of a slowdown began to proliferate. Joining Adam on stage to discuss were CEO of Athena Art Finance Andrea Danese, New York art lawyer Steve Schindler, and art advisor and curator Jeffrey Deitch. Here are four takeaways from the discussion:

An art-market slowdown could actually be good for collectors.

Deitch put the state of the market into a historical perspective when he noted that, in his 20 years sitting on panels to discuss the art market, this was the first time it hadn’t been rising. But he also made it clear that he doesn’t think that fact is cause for alarm. Quite the opposite: “I remain very, very optimistic and enthusiastic about this market,” Deitch said.

The former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Deitch traced a brief history of the art market—from the 1970s, when the buying and selling of art was less of a market and more of a “community,” through to today, where it has transformed into what he terms an “art industry.” The unprecedented art-market boom of the last five years had a dark side, according to Deitch: “There were a lot of extremes, a lot of excesses.”

He views a slowdown not as a reason to run for the hills, but rather an opportunity for serious art collectors to make their mark. In particular, a cooler market may be an opportunity to redefine how emerging artists are collected. “The traditional collector, when I began in the 1970s, was not concerned at all about the secondary market for emerging artists,” Deitch said. “People collected as an extension of their own vision.” Now, he says, collectors are often quite concerned about the projected financial performance of artworks they collect. “It has damaged the fabric of collecting emerging artists, and of course it’s induced the phenomenons of speculators and flippers,” he said. With a cooling of the art market, he suggested, it may be easier for collectors to take a step back and invest based on their proclivities rather than the potential for a huge windfall. (This echoes the comments of Lisson Gallery’s Alex Logsdail, when speaking to Artsy at Art Basel in Miami Beach this past December.)

Danese jumped in: “Look at emerging artists the same way you look at angel investing—for every 50 you take, if you’re lucky, one works.” He cautioned that buyers shouldn’t invest in emerging art seeking out a meaningful rate of return on their investment; instead, it should be a chance for them to support an artist they feel passionate about.

Art is now an asset class. Or is it?

The responses were mixed when Adams posed the question: “Is art now securely established as an asset class?” For Deitch, the answer was a firm yes. He said the key indicator that places art alongside more traditional asset classes, such as stocks and bonds, is the ability to borrow against it. “It’s proven to be a very, very solid asset,” he said. Danese agreed, citing a constant rate of return somewhere in the 12–15% range.

Schindler pushed back on the classification, however. “To my mind, while art is a valuable asset, to me it’s not quite there yet,” said the lawyer. He noted that stocks and bonds tend to perform consistently in response to changing economic conditions, while fluctuations in the value of art are less consistently tied to macroeconomic forces. “Partly it’s the transparency thing, partly it’s the idiosyncratic nature of the thing, but it doesn’t seem to rise to the same level of predictability as these same asset categories,” he said.

Danese countered, noting that the rise and fall of stock prices can also be notoriously unpredictable, and that if someone were able to amass a large and varied enough art collection, its value would stay more consistent. “It’s an asset class in its infancy, if you will,” he said.

Either way, the art market’s financialization is increasing transparency.

There are people who value the opacity of the art market, who “think it makes it interesting and idiosyncratic,” Schindler said. “On the other hand, we also see arriving into this market people from the world of finance, for whom opacity is unacceptable.” For Schindler and his firm, this means in-depth provenance and title research to gain a better understanding of what their clients are financing. That way they can avoid the art world’s “incredible lack of carefulness or record-keeping that sometimes hinders these transactions,” he said.

For his part, Danese sees the introduction of greater transparency as something that “could unlock an enormous amount of liquidity”—to the tune of trillions of dollars. More information about the value and provenance of works would bring an influx of new buyers into the market, he said, who may feel uncomfortable with the way business is currently conducted and worry that they are paying inflated prices. He believes a push for transparency will modernize the market, creating efficiency that it currently lacks.

Authenticity weighs heavy on major art-market players and their pockets.

Throughout the hour-long discussion, the Knoedler scandal came up every 10 minutes, like clockwork. Deitch recalled seeing one of the Knoedler fakes, a Pollock that sold for $17 million at the ADAA’s The Art Show more than a decade ago, and thinking that something was off. “But you can’t stand in the middle of the art fair booth and yell, ‘Fake!’” he said with a rueful smile. “In addition to just being completely inappropriate, you will get sued.” Deitch has been sued, in fact, for his involvement in a Basquiat authentication committee and said he spent $100,000 personally handling the suit.

He’s not alone—authenticating committees have a history of folding due to legal fees. Schindler, who serves on the Art Law Committee of New York City’s Bar Association, is working to alter the legal landscape in favor of authenticators. Although he has helped to draft legislation that would shield authenticators from legal fees if they win in court (which they usually do), so far the bill has not been passed. He sees this sort of legislation as an important step towards increasing market transparency and avoiding the sort of costly lawsuits that resulted from the Knoedler Gallery fakes.

Abigail Cain