After the multi-billion dollar sales of 2015 it seems that there will be weighty expectations for 2016 in the art market. Although there are headwinds of a low oil price, a Chinese collector vacuum and a sub-par Taubman sale (which may cause a few butterflies in the stomachs of top investors) there is still life in the market for great paintings and sculpture of any period. One has to remember that 2015 saw the top price for a work of art at auction in Picasso’s Femmes d’Algers (180m USD). That kind of bidding prowess does not disappear overnight. Obviously the contemporary market has been explosive with more and more wealth piling into Warhol, Bacon and Rothko. When I started in the auction world 17 years ago my first sale saw a 1982 Basquiat scrape through at 400,000 USD – now it would be around 10m USD!
In 2015 art fairs were everywhere: the handful of good ones were great and the multiple bad ones were horrendous. The Basels and TEFAF proved as popular as ever but some of the lesser shows were not visited and will eventually disappear – there was simply too much for sale around the globe and competition was fierce. Sadly the one big let-down, in terms of sales, was Frieze Masters which yet again struggled to gain the sort of traction in the calendar that one would have hoped from such a first rate group of exhibitors. The Nehmad stand was worth viewing on its own, but I just felt that people were at FM to look and not to spend. Many were from the Frieze Contemporary side of Regent’s park with neither the money nor the inclination to offer millions for top class Impressionists and Modern. I hope it stays, for London’s sake, but it will be interesting to see who pays for booths for October 2016.
The top dealers clearly believe that London is the place to be with Dominique Levy opening to some acclaim recently. I shall be interested to see how she fares given the wonderful gallery space that she took over from Thomas Williams. It is one of the best addresses in the world – 22 Old Bond St. Now all the biggest dealers have a major space, not just an office, in the greatest city in the world: Gagosian, Pace, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth. London’s position as the epicentre of the art world is solid enough for now but prices are starting to bite smaller dealers who have begun to move to 1st floor (US 2nd floor) galleries as a result. The other major opening was the Newport Street Gallery belonging to Damien Hirst. Indeed, 2016 may be the year of Hirst’s revival, a couple of dealers have been muting the idea of investing in Hirst’s work again – a clever idea but I doubt he will reach the sort of headline grabbing prices of eight years ago for many, many years.
In the auction houses, while there was a slight feeling of art overload at the end of 2015 I think the market will pick up where it left off (depending on what is available for sale of course). The days of guarantees are with us for as long as third parties are happy to underwrite the risk. However, there will come a time when the market for mediocre contemporary pictures corrects and a few of those very expensive third party guarantees are going to look very foolish indeed.
Much depends on the economy but I think 2016 will be a good year for the market for the right works – any poor quality, over-exposed paintings and sculpture will struggle to find buyers. But… good works will be good works in any market. What is clear is that if the market does turn it will be a great opportunity to collect! In short, my general advice would be hunt down great works on paper and good works by lesser names, new to the market but not to art history. If you are looking to buy at high levels do use an advisor and make sure that you can afford to hold an acquisition in your collection for a decent period of time before selling again.