Sothebys latest Market Review, issued last night, strikes a slightly defensive but none-the-less optimistic tone, using two key arguments to support their optimism.
The first is their contention that the market of today is unlikely to suffer a crash and sustained down period similar to that of the 1990s. They base this view on the not unreasonable statement that there are more sources of buyers than was the case when Japan was the source of new money bidding up markets in the 1980s. At that time, the argument goes, there was no-one to take their place when the Japanese retreated from the market in the 90s; things are different now. Well, certainly this time we have seen new buyers from Eastern Europe, Russia, China and India entering the fray, in addition to all the new money in the US and the UK. But, as we have seen with the recent US sub-prime driven hiccup, all markets can catch a cold at the same time in today’s globally interlinked financial markets. In addition, that greater diversity of buyers is buying a greater diversity of Art, including contemporary and traditional works from their own regions (China and India being prime examples). They are not just focussed on traditional Western Art markets. So I am not sure there is the greater depth of buyer support for the traditional European and US modern and contemporary markets that Sothebys believes is there.
Their second argument for optimism is that there is a rise in the average price of lots sold over recent months.
From those price increases, however, we can infer a larger market of potential buyers.
Well, from their own figures we can see that over the same period: total sale value has actually fallen steadily since May 2007, and number of lots per sale have also fallen steadily from November 2006. With number of lots sold falling, average price per lot rising, but overall sales value falling, that actualy tells us that a few buyers are paying more money for (presumably) top works, but that fewer people overall are buying, less money overall is being spent and fewer works are being sold. Perhaps there is a larger market of potential buyers. But at the moment it looks like, aside from those at the top end of the market who are generally immune to financial market troubles, there are fewer buyers actually buying, not more.
Still, if it means a return to auctions being about quality of works, rather than quantity, it might make them interesting to attend again…