How 2015 May Have Marked the End of the Art Market’s Boom Years
“It is worth noting that the art market is really a set of loosely related mini-markets, all of which behave very differently. But for the first time in years we are seeing a similar trend across each of these distinct markets: a slowdown.”
“Slowdown,” “stabilization,” and “stagnation” are three terms that have been consistently applied to the art market in recent months. Christie’s announced that sales across their divisions were down 5% in 2015 from the previous year. And Sotheby’s sales were more or less flat, year-over-year. But Phillips saw a whopping
34% increase in sales over 2014. While the latter house’s bottom line is much lower than the other pair, it suggests that some
but not all sectors of the art market are lagging.
The art market stabilized in 2015 but remains a safe investment for achieving capital gains, according to data provided by art market price index Artprice. However, the current instability in global financial markets and no year-over-year improvement on auction results does hint at stagnation in the secondary market. Artprice stresses that the total revenue from public sales in the West has more than doubled in 10 years, and that the value of masterpieces is untouched by economic fluctuations. Most juicily, for those interested in art as an investment, the analytics platform cites a constant rate of return for an artwork worth more than $100,000 of 12–15%.
Across the “mini-markets” that Burns cites—referring to the differing supply and demand structures for works in distinct segments of the market, such as Old Masters, Russian art, Post-War, and Contemporary, which in turn dictate differing levels of price volatility and overall performance—sales figures were indeed lower in the past 12 months. Burns makes particular reference to the disappointing results of the London Old Master auctions, which earned Christie’s some of its lowest sales figures in the category in 10 years. Nonetheless, the 12-15% growth in upper-market masterpieces holds up across different regions (even if the highest figures are still achieved in New York), an indication that the market, while stabilizing, is mature. Artprice also highlights the role that an increase in the number of works trading hands has played in the stabilization of the market. Last year, in the West alone, 360,000+ works changed hands, an increase of three percent over 2014 and 40% more than a decade before, in 2005. So, even if an uptick in market velocity hasn’t necessarily correlated to significant economic gains, trade is occurring at a fast clip.
“In November, most of the contemporary, impressionist and modern auctions in New York failed to hit their low estimates, a sign that these markets have been pushed far enough.”
A mixed bag of results from the November Contemporary, Impressionist, and Modern sales in New York warrants a bit more nuance on this statement, even if some sales certainly underperformed. At Christie’s New York, the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on November 10th saw several disappointing results as works by
, among eight others, failed to reach their low estimates. Nonetheless, the now-infamous “The Artist’s Muse” sale just one night before fell handily within its estimate.
On what’s relatively the other side of the price-spectrum for such weeks, the Sotheby’s day sale on November 12th also yielded good results, with some works achieving more than double their high estimate. (
’s Blue Pumpkin
was one successful result among many, fetching $538,000 on a $150,000–200,000 presale estimate.) The Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on November 11th also saw 24 works exceed their high estimates, including pieces by
. However, the house’s online sale “Fast Forward: New Directions in Contemporary Art” on November 17th saw a number of works—including pieces by
, Felandus Thames, and Jonathan Roth—fail to reach their low estimates. As much as that could be read as market-softening, it could equally be a sign that buyers’ appetite for online sales (in comparison to traditional in-room and telephone bidding) still has much room for growth.