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On Art

Carry on spending

Even the venerable and conservative Louvre is exploring various fundraising novelties, says Michael Prodger

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The art market faces 2021 in an uncertain and anxious frame of mind. In many ways it adapted quickly to the events of 2020, with online auctions — which had grown in five of the past six years to reach $5.9 billion in sales in 2019 — quickly becoming the norm rather than the niche. Christie’s and Sotheby’s online auctions, for example, have grown by 900 per cent and account for more than half of all their sales value.

Nevertheless, as both they and their clients adapted to the new world, their auctions in the first half of 2020 were down in value by a half and a fifth by volume, even if the ditching of traditional sale seasons to enable year-round auctions meant that some ground was recovered in the second half of the year.

The art market has always striven to be something other than simply a retail trade and personal contact is a vital element of the business

Proof that a packed auction house was not necessary to bump up prices came in June when Sotheby’s held a socially distanced auction in London: the room was empty but the action was streamed live around the world. Thanks to global time differences and the need to appeal to buyers outside Europe, the gavel didn’t come down on the last lot until 2.51 am.

Tired eyes were, however, a small price to pay: the headline piece of the affair was Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) which went for $84.6 million, the third highest price paid for the artist at auction — with it being unclear if the purchaser had even seen the work in the flesh.

Other innovations were also trialled, including the “sealed bid auction” at Sotheby’s in October which set a minimum bid of $90 million for a characteristic Giacometti sculpture, Grande femme I (1960), and apparently met it (or more).

Last year played havoc with art fairs, the jamborees that have become an increasingly remunerative feature of the art market over the past decade: in 2019 they accounted for $16.6 billion of sales. One of the most important, Tefaf in Maastricht, with 280 participating galleries, opened in March and shut a few days later with more than 100 exhibitors and visitors struck down with Covid. Frieze’s London and New York iterations didn’t even get going and nor did three of Art Basel’s fairs around the world. The widespread response to the cancellations was the development of online viewing rooms but these essentially offer just an upmarket online shopping experience; a “QVC for oligarchs”, as it has been called.

The art market has always striven to be something other than simply a retail trade and personal contact is a vital element of the business, with exhibitors and collectors circling the globe from fair to biennale to fair. The diminution of face-to-face schmoozing has had a deleterious effect on sales. The personal touch is particularly
important in the US where the arrival of autumn means the fund-raising gala season. Last year Americans museums lost $33 million per day during pandemic-induced closures and tried to recoup funds with virtual galas that included performances, “gala-on-the-sofa” boxes containing limited edition artworks, temporary tattoos, artist-designed facemasks, and so on. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York tried a “pay what you can” virtual gala and had 2,000 people take part. These new forms of money-raising may be here to stay since on average some 60 per cent of a gala budget goes toward the venue, catering, equipment hire and other cost.

The alternative, as many American museums have already found, is to sell works from their collections on the open market — a dubious trend that has been accelerating.

Elsewhere, even as venerable and conservative an institution as the Louvre is exploring fund-raising novelties. In December it held its first charity auction to aid its outreach projects. It had been stung into action not just by the precipitous tail-off in visitor numbers but by the findings of a report which found that in 2018, 71 per cent of French nationals did not visit a museum or an exhibition — the same figure as in 1973. What’s more, the number of blue-collar and standard employee visitors was down by 27 per cent.

These new forms of money-raising may be here to stay since on average some 60 per cent of a gala budget goes toward the venue, catering, equipment hire and other cost

To fund restorative action, the museum called in favours from artists — Pierre Soulages donated a 1962 painting — and auctioned a series of “experiences”. Among the lots was the opportunity to accompany the director of the museum on his annual examination of the Mona Lisa, while you could take a tour of the Louvre by night for €10,000-15,000 — entrance is usually €15.

There is plenty of money around for such indulgences. Each year Art Basel and USB produce a survey examining current art market trends and in 2020 they released a half-yearly report to assess the effect of the pandemic. According to its findings, 92 per cent of high net worth collectors had already bought one or more works; indeed, 60 per cent reckoned the pandemic had not been a check on their collecting instinct but had increased their interest.

In October alone nine works — including a Picasso, a Rothko, a Cy Twombly and a scroll by the seventeenth-century Chinese painter Wu Bin (which went for some $76 million) — each reached more than $20 million.

While HNW individuals may not have suffered, the wider industry most certainly did. The value of gallery sales was down on the same period in 2019 by an average of 36 per cent, and 33 per cent of all galleries — high and low-end — had either furloughed or laid off staff. Many of those galleries with smaller turnovers will not recover. What this coming year will show is whether the art world has become a different entity or simply a shrunken version of the old. And for Britain, the world’s second largest market, there’s Brexit coming too …

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