The Art Market: Not so fizzy

The Asian art sales in New York, which concluded after we went to press last week, showed a continuing appetite for Chinese works of art, but marked weakness in other fields, such as Japanese and Korean art. But as the proverb goes, “Trees can’t grow up to the sky”, and while some big prices were set, there was marked resistance at the higher levels, particularly over $1m.

The New York market for Chinese art is different from that in Hong Kong: the US is traditionally stronger for Chinese furniture and early works such as Song ceramics or archaic bronzes, whereas in Asia buyers favour the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), with a particular affection for the great Qianlong emperor during whose long reign (1735-96) the dynasty was at the zenith of its power. The ceramics and works of art of this period are colourful and decorative, in contrast to the more sober earlier works. “Buyers in Hong Kong like to ‘see the value’,” says Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s vice-chairman of Asian art in New York.

However, Sotheby’s sale of Chinese works saw four of the top five lots bought in – two pairs of chairs, and two archaic bronzes, leading to a buy-in rate by lot of 32.8 per cent and a total of $22.7m. Dealers said the estimates of the bronzes were punchy (one archaic vessel had a target of $2.5m-$3m) and Howard-Sneyd, who took the sale, said that the market “wasn’t as fizzy as before”. Only one piece went over $1m, a 5th-century gilt-bronze Buddha bought by London’s Eskenazi. What may have also influenced the outcome, although Howard-Sneyd denies this, was the importation of the Hong Kong system of “premium lots” – the case with the five top estimated lots for which potential buyers had to register in advance and pay a deposit.

Christie’s, which traditionally dominates the New York market, did far better with its $38.8m sale of Chinese works of art, with just 20 per cent by lot bought in. It only fielded one lot over $1m, a large gilt-bronze figure of Vairocana which made $1.3m. But the top billing was for a Qianlong moonflask, which went for almost three times estimate at $2.7m, and in a separate sale of a jade collection an 18th-century jade melon box fetched $2.1m (estimate: $100,000-$150,000), going to an Asian dealer. But a number of the pricier works were left on the block. Jonathan Stone, Christie’s head in Asia, said: “We are seeing a degree of renewed price sensitivity in this market”.

Washington DC hosts its first international art fair this weekend, in the funky modern surroundings of the Capitol Skyline hotel. Titled rather self-effacingly “(e)merge”, the fair groups 40 dealers and 40 unrepresented artists in two different sections: the dealers pay to do the fair, but the artists don’t. The idea, says co-founder Leigh Conner of Conner Contemporary Art, is “to bring together emerging artists and emerging collectors”. And prices are gentle: “You shouldn’t have to take out a loan to buy young art,” she says. “Visitors can expect to see work in the $500-$10,000 range, with the bulk under $5,000.” Among the offerings is Katie Miller’s “Young Bling Cole and Merry Canary” (2011, Conner Contemporary) and Jeremy Dean’s 2011 “Untitled” – framed paint-splattered flags (Aureas Gallery), both tagged between $3,000 and $4,000. The hotel belongs to the Miami-based, art-collecting Rubells, and Mera Rubell is on the fair committee; the couple are also planning a museum nearby to showcase their collection, due to open in 2014.

With the art fair calendar already overflowing – hardly a week goes by without another new event being announced somewhere in the world – some seem bound to be elbowed out. New York’s Gallery Weekend, organised in May for the past two years, is unlikely to happen next year. The event was already struggling to emulate the far more successful Berlin Gallery Week, and the death blow is likely to be the arrival of Frieze’s first New York fair in May next year. “With Frieze coming to New York there are 100m things happening at the same time, and I don’t think it’s necessary to repeat and repeat our event,” says one of the founders, Casey Kaplan. “The weekend never really attracted international collectors, and there is just so much to do anyway in the city,” confirms Janelle Reiring of Metro Pictures. Kaplan says things have changed since the global financial crisis: “After 2008 we were seeing 16 people in the gallery over the weekend – now I see over 400,” he says.

There are over 400,000 art galleries in the world, according to art economist Clare McAndrew. In this highly fragmented market, many galleries are one-man shows, and McAndrew reports that under 5 per cent and possibly even only 2 per cent account for over half the estimated €22bn turnover that galleries made last year.

The smaller ones have always struggled to make themselves heard above the noise of the auction houses and “mega-galleries” – you know who I mean, Gagosian and others. Conscious of a lack of both a common voice and cohesion among the galleries, Llucià Homs, who himself has been an art fair organiser and an art dealer, has established a conference called “Talking Galleries”.

He now works for La Fabrica, a cultural events company that also runs an art gallery, and was behind the inaugural meeting, held this week in his native Barcelona. It attracted some 200 participants, mainly Spanish but including others from South Africa, the US, Serbia and Sweden. For three days they debated key issues such as the future of art fairs, the globalisation of the art world and the place of the internet. “I felt that before this, there was no space for galleries to exchange ideas and discuss problems,” says Homs.

As a try-out it was a success: Homs has already secured the funding for a second edition next year, which will be twice the size and promises to extend its programme and international reach.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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