This is shaping up to be quite a year in the art world. In May in New York, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips had US$2.3bil (RM8.7bil) in combined sales at their week of contemporary art auctions.
Bolstered by Christie’s US$705.9mil (RM2.6bil) Looking Forward To The Past sale of modern and contemporary masterworks, the total represented an all-time high for any series of art auctions.
In Switzerland in June, at Art Basel – the world’s premier fair devoted to modern and contemporary art – tested whether wealthy collectors were as willing to buy from galleries as auctions.
Although fairs always present mixed pictures, and dealers are often reluctant to discuss financial details, the 46th edition of the event, which closed on June 21, nonetheless created the inescapable impression that contemporary art – or at least certain kinds of contemporary art – has become a recreational investment of choice for the 1%.
Participating dealers, who entertained thousands of clients with lavish parties and dinners, pointed out that collectors who had not been able to buy at the New York auctions were looking for consolation purchases at Basel, and those who had sold at those auctions had plenty of money to spend.
“It’s all about power and money,” the New York dealer Paula Cooper said on June 17, the second of two VIP preview days. At the same time, she said, buying and selling art “provides people with a social life” while giving them what they think is a safe investment.
Seated in a booth surrounded by about 20 red dots denoting confirmed sales, Cooper added, “Where else are people going to park their money?”
Among these sales was Bitmap Gradient Glare, a 2014 geometric canvas-ribbon abstract by Tauba Auerbach that was bought for US$200,000 (RM756,460) by an unnamed Swiss museum, Cooper said.
Auerbach, who was born in 1981, no longer makes Fold paintings, and while her subtle, poetic compositions remain highly desirable in the so-called secondary market, risk-averse collectors have become increasingly reluctant to spend large, speculative sums on younger contemporaries.
Spend, spend, spend
“I’m not going to spend US$80,000 (RM302,580) on someone new whose work I don’t know,” said the New York advisor Candace Worth, who was buying for clients unable to attend the fair. “Buyers need to do their research and also buy with their eyes, and not spend crazy numbers on things they’ve heard their friends are buying.”
The new froth-free mood was reflected in Art Basel’s main, two-tier Galleries section, where few of the 284 exhibitors were showing the big, showy “process based” abstract paintings that were ubiquitous at contemporary art fairs in 2014. Most of the fair’s big-ticket sales were being generated on the ground floor by museum-validated artists who were either dead or were in the middle or late stages of established careers. And hefty prices were being paid for them.
An unnamed European collector bought Mountain II, a 1966 acrylic-and-graphite painting by Agnes Martin (1912-2004) priced at US$9.5mil (RM36mil), at the booth of the New York and London dealer David Zwirner. Her work is now the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern in London.
Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) was the subject of recent retrospective shows at Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This might have helped the San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier sell Polke’s 1974-78 gelatin silver photo piece Untitled (Quetta, Pakistan, Tea Ceremony) for US$900,000 (RM340,000).
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