The Hungarian art market is being reshaped by the same two fundamental forces that are changing the art market everywhere: the appearance of tremendous amounts of wealth and concomitant purchasing power (and need for social validation), and the inexorable drying up of inventory in pre-contemporary markets. Thus, prices escalate and collectors’ interests shift from old to contemporary, where inventory is theoretically boundless. After some major auction milestones in 19th and 20th c. masters, there is now vibrancy in the contemporary market as well. Formerly scattershot gut-impulse buyers are starting to purchase on a scale that may be called “collecting.” A notion is beginning to take hold among successful men and women that, through a methodical pattern of purchases, you can build up a collection with a specific identity. The thirty-somethings and forty-somethings at the upper echelons of business and finance have been exposed to the west. They have traveled, studied, and lived abroad. They speak languages and know the cultural codes. They’re paying attention, and they want to emulate the symbolic patterns of behavior common among the wealthy in the west.
Last spring, I visited a celebrity fundraising auction at the Budapest Kunsthalle presided over by a Habsburg princess. There was no gap between what I saw there and what you would perceive at any similar event in New York or London. Erika Deak, a dealer of the younger generation, reports “our generation is starting to do really well, which is really wonderful for us. It is exciting that there are a few buyers, just like abroad, who are listening to us, the experts, and are willing to get behind projects.” Deak, who started out in New York, is noticing a subtle shift in taste. “I am now able to sell videos – not a whole lot, but slowly even this young medium is achieving acceptance.” What the local dealers and collectors have not been able to do is break through to international recognition. There is a Leipzig School, but no Budapest School. It may be the artists’ fault, but more than likely this speaks to the weakness of the dealer-collector-presenter infrastructure. There is no representation available yet that is enterprising and savvy enough to move Hungarian artists up into the next bracket of recognition.
The market itself still has some growing up to do. It’s cliquey and secretive – even more than to the west. People in the business are buzzing about a recent (Dec. 15) article in the Financial Times by Christopher Congdon, who claimed that “High prices are not the only factor that makes Budapest a sometimes risky market for the unaware. Rising demand has also encouraged some controversial practices, from staged bidding to forgeries. There are also occasional questions over provenance and rightful ownership.” Local dealers are grumbling that Congdon has it all wrong. Perhaps. But right or wrong, local dealers have to shake these perceptions before they merit the trust of international buyers.