2009 Art Sales May Not Have Been Bad For Auction Houses, But Was It Good For Art?

Antique Week, Vol. 41, Issue No. 2112 (January 11, 2010) has a report in the national section on art sales in 2009.

In the article, two things stood out for me.

First:

Auction houses started slashing pre-sale estimates by as much as 50 percent to stimulate sales. When Sloans & Kenyon of Chevy Chase, Md., gave a $6,000-8,000 estimate to an unsigned 18th century oil of the Grand Canal in Venice, bidders from around the world smelled a deal. Instead, the painting went for $687,125 at the Sept. 27 auction.

The math’s off (the pre-sale estimate was what, 10-15% of the final sale?), but one thing’s for sure: People buy classic art the same way they buy bags of socks at Wal*Mart.

Second:

Old Masters are getting a new look from investors wary of fluctuations in more modern art, Warhol excluded. In its art review of 2009, Bloomberg said, “Collectors responded to the financial crisis by selecting the best 20th century classics, Old Masters, wine and jewelry at international auctions. They shunned investment in some contemporary art as prices dropped by half.”

And, it was noted earlier in the piece that Bloomberg had reported “that the sale of high-value contemporary art took a big hit last year when major auction houses ceased providing consignors with price guarantees.”

What this says to me is something about fundamentalism at times of crisis and art pretension as a form of commerce; art as financial investment based on fear of depreciation, not art purchased for appreciation.

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