The Art Market: Sparky sales and circuit breakers

Well. What a year that was

Economically speaking, 2012 was dismal in many parts of the world, but the art market again demonstrated astonishing resilience, racking up records at the top end and maintaining some momentum at the bottom end, even if the middle market found the going tough.

Overall, according to the art site, sales of fine art at auction until just before Christmas were more than $9bn, and are expected to top $10bn once complete figures for the year are in. This shows a contraction compared with 2011’s record-breaking $11.8bn, but nonetheless should beat 2010, the second-highest grossing year with $9.5bn.

Contemporary art rules the roost

2012 was notable for the continuing strength of the market for postwar and contemporary art, with a bias towards the “blue-chip” end. Impressionist and modern art, once the bedrock of the market, is being edged out by contemporary. While the highest price ever given at auction was set this year by Munch’s “The Scream” (1895), at almost $120m, postwar and contemporary art represented 33 per cent of the market in 2012 with just over $3bn, up from 28 per cent in 2011.

Francis Bacon’s 1963 ‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes’ sold for £21.3m in London in February

Though modern art (and Old Masters) potentially offer the highest prices (just look at the $250m paid for Cézanne’s “The Card Players”, 1895, in 2011) the inventory is more limited in these sectors. Contemporary art offers better supply, and the strong market for postwar artists has brought many works to auction: Bacon’s “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” (1963), £21.3m in London in February; Rothko’s “No 1 (Royal Red and Blue)” (1954), $75.1m in New York in November; and Jackson Pollock’s “Number 4” (1951), $40.4m, at the same sale.

The biggest surprise was probably the sparkling performance of Gerhard Richter, who in the wake of a retrospective at Tate (October 2011-January 2012) saw his prices rocket skywards. One of his late squeegee abstracts made $21.8m in New York in May 2012 – a record that was shattered just five months later in London, when £21.3m was given for another abstract, consigned by the musician Eric Clapton.

In New York, as the auction year drew to a close in November, $1bn was splurged on art – despite the sales being held in the wake of the devastating superstorm Sandy.

Art fairs – out of control?

The art fair merry-go-round spun almost out of control this year, with two major new fairs added to the already jam-packed circuit. Frieze inaugurated a New York edition in May and, despite sluggish sales, was pronounced a success for its snaking light-filled tent, clear layout, good food and a location (on Randall’s Island) that defied the naysayers and proved no bar to visitors.

Frieze pulled its second rabbit out of the hat with “Masters”, held alongside October’s Frieze in London. It garnered universal praise for its mix of ancient and modern, although sales tended to be concentrated in the 20th-century booths.

And alongside these two newcomers, a raft of smaller fairs were started up or announced in Melbourne, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Lima and London, while Miami Beach saw no fewer than six newcomers in the satellite fair constellation. While a few events have disappeared, more were created, and it seems hard to believe all will survive in the coming years, particularly as a number of dealers say they will cut back on fair attendance in 2013.

Galleries grew and globalised

Art galleries grew in many ways in 2012. First, physically, by opening huge new spaces – Zwirner now has 40,000 sq ft in New York and London, and is adding another 30,000 sq ft New York’s Chelsea in February. In Paris, Thaddaeus Ropac spread into a 50,600 sq ft former heating factory in Pantin.

This year also saw massive expansion into two key cities – Hong Kong and London. White Cube, Perrotin and Simon Lee all opened outlets in Hong Kong, mainly showcasing western art, from Kiefer at White Cube to Sherrie Levine at Lee.

At the same time, London gained some of the heaviest hitters in the art business: Zwirner, Pace, Skarstedt and Werner all unveiled new premises in the British capital during Frieze week. Their motivation, both for Hong Kong and for Britain, is to offer international exposure to their artists and tap into the local mega-wealthy communities.

Gagosian – cracks in the empire?

As the year ended, the headlong expansion of super-gallerist Larry Gagosian suddenly hit a bump, when three of his star artists defected. In December it emerged that Jeff Koons was planning a show with arch-rival Zwirner in what looks like the prelude to an exit from Gagosian. Then in quick succession Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama bowed out too.

So what is happening here? Opinions vary but one element may be the bad publicity generated by a couple of lawsuits involving Gagosian, one over a Koons sculpture. Or it may be simply that with the top end of the market riding high, artists have got the upper hand and are abandoning any loyalty to their dealers.

Artists: more = worse?

With so much art needed to fill the huge new galleries, private museums, art fairs and pluriennales, artists have also been scaling up their production facilities. Sterling Ruby has just opened a massive new studio in California; Anselm Kiefer has a studio in a former warehouse near Le Bourget airport, where he can churn out work.

There was something of a backlash against the growing gigantism this year, however, with observers accusing artists of over-production and fears that this could lead, sooner rather than later, to an implosion of art values.

As Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon wrote recently: “It just doesn’t make sense to drop millions of dollars on a Christopher Wool, say, when no one has a clue how many thousands of the things there are in existence.”

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

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