Happy New Year and a Preview of the Art Market in 2021

As has been recorded countless times, the art market in 2020 was well and truly up-ended by the bizarre times in which Covid forces us to live. The early part of 2021 looks no different and I envisage no fairs of importance taking place physically until the early Summer. That said, the auction houses have invested so dearly in their online-auction production values that they may feel it is somewhat business as usual.

It is funny to think back to the early forays that Sotheby’s made into online selling, in conjunction with Ebay, under the leadership of Diana Brooks in the late 1990s – it was a disaster, but she saw the future and the future looked bright. Little can Sotheby’s have known back then what a success their online presence would be in 2020. Although according to the bible of the art world, the Baer Faxt, Sotheby’s stole the show on the online selling front I felt Christie’s weren’t too far behind. Christies’ initial innovations back in 2014 of top-end, cross-market/department sales have been a lifesaver for their headline auctions. I see that continuing.

Online Art fairs in 2021 are few and far between for the simple reason that art fairs depend on revenue streams from a physical presence. The cost of a decent, but not ‘super-glitzy’, stand at TEFAF is around 85,000 GBP. It is impossible to charge even 10% of that sum for an online art fair. Art Basel aims for a physical fair in Hong Kong in May and in Basel in June. Whereas TEFAF are marketing May in NYC as a physical fair: which is a bold move. Baer remarked somewhat pessimistically, but entirely understandably, that the first physical art fair will likely be the Art Basel Miami fair in December. It may seem a long way off but with the vaccines shortly in full flow here in the UK we might see a late Masterpiece London if government allows.

The main issue with 2021 is trying to gauge the supply and demand for works of art in the New Year after (we pray) Covid has been assuaged. Our feeling is that demand will be high, very high, off the back of all this money printing (quantitative easing). Inflation is a constant scare for all those that lived through eras of high inflation. There is an argument that Art remains a great inflation hedge in the long term.

As to supply, I doubt there will be the vast series of fire sales predicted since successful clients have a tendency to hold tight at a time such as this. The opportunities for business investment (i.e. selling art to generate cash) are during a stock market downturn and that has not been the case yet.

So, what artists will be in favour? I feel the obvious contemporary names will continue to rise in fame and price with Zanele Muholi, Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, Matthew Wong, Nicolas Party et al continuing to dazzle. In the impressionist and Modern sphere there are clear signs that decent supply is drying up as collectors are wary of selling in this climate. This has a strange effect on the market where lesser artists make higher numbers but as the supply of quality falls so does the perception, and only the perception, of demand. The higher the calibre of artist and the rarer they appear the higher the final price. We have seen Pissarro prices perceived to be falling – they aren’t. The quality of pictures offered is falling not the demand for his masterworks.

Monet, Kandinsky, Picasso – all the big names will do well this year as wealth and healthy stock markets become ever keener on tangible assets. One collector friend implied that he would rather buy the most spurious contemporary artist as an investment rather than dabble in Bitcoin (which is now soaring!).

The next main auctions will take place in March at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. A former colleague at Sotheby’s admitted that keeping track of the auctions in the latter part of 2020 was impossible with Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillip’s failing to collate their auctions into a coherent schedule. I am glad that we can get back to some semblance of calendar normality with a March season, May season etc. Christie’s have been really aggressive with their marketing for Evening sale consignments which makes me think that their sale needs numbers. That said, to put together a top-class sale in these conditions would be extraordinary.

This promises to be an intriguing year for us all, both in the trade and for collector’s too. There will be multiple opportunities to buy and to sell. Please, do use an advisor when buying/selling big ticket items and, most importantly, have a safe, fun, 2021!

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