August jitters yield to back-to-school confidence—at least for now. After a rash of premature obituaries, the art market is humming briskly again and news of epic sales fills the air. Even Damien Hirst’s diamond skull has found buyers (including, so it is rumored, the artist). Its fate as the shimmering emblem of early 21st-century excess is now sealed.The question now is whether the art market is headed even deeper into record-breaking territory as the last refuge of investors and speculators, á la 1989, or whether it is already on a sliding path toward a landing—soft, hard, or otherwise? It is a delicious moment, pregnant with wildly opposing possibilities.
Reading the posts of the last few weeks, one longs for clearer metrics. Are there more reliable early indicators of yet another exuberant season of sales? Or conversely, are some “canary-in-the-mineshaft” indices registering advance tremors of a downturn?
Our debate on guarantees offered few clues. Reluctance to offer guarantees would parallel the lending caution that engulfed the financial markets in late summer, but our panel found no proof of such reluctance (auction guarantees this season are, in fact, expected to run into the billions). Daily reports of new gallery openings and museum ventures similarly belie prognostications of impending doom.
The problem is that some indicators of change can be interpreted as harbingers of squarely opposing trends. What exact conclusion would be drawn from evidence that dealers are getting more calls about placing works quietly, or taking pictures back on consignment? If a spate of exceptionally high-quality pictures were to come to market, would that be seen as a sign that sellers are trying to slip through a closing window of opportunity? Or would it be seen as evidence of the health of a market that is coaxing even the most beloved masterpieces off people’s walls? What is the exact interpretation of trimmed museum acquisition budgets? What can we read into shorter or longer waiting lists? Are dipping or spiking art school applications advance indicators of growth or decline?
As we begin a season of many likely surprises, can this panel suggest clear signs of what’s ahead?