Full of Eastern promise

Out with the old, in with the new: Michael Prodger on art collection trends

On Art

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Some art market traits are so entrenched that trends have become the status quo. It is well within memory that the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists represented the hot sector of the market and watching Van Gogh’s prices hit a succession of world records was a chichi spectator sport.

There was a real buzz in 1987 when one of his sunflower paintings set a world record price of $40 million, only to be superseded that same year when his Irises went for $49 million. Then he self-gazumped once again in 1990 when his late portrait of his doctor, Paul Gachet, fetched $75 million. Van Gogh still makes big sums, but the market itself has moved on.

For many years it looked as if the old verities might reassert themselves but for love or Monet there’s no coming back from there

For the past 20 years the real action has been in the Modern (artists born between 1875 and 1910) and Postwar and Contemporary (artists born after 1910) sectors. The old stuff no longer cuts it with most collectors.

The global pandemic seems only to have entrenched tastes. According to the latest Art Basel/UBS report on the global art market, Modern and Postwar and Contemporary art accounted for 81 per cent of the total sales value of fine art auctions in 2020.

By way of contrast, the long-declining Impressionists and Post-Impressionists had, even for them, a lemming year. They experienced their most substantial annual fall in 15 years, tumbling a whopping 51 per cent: in 2017, I & PI paintings made $2.3 billion, last year that sum was down to just $870 million. For many years it looked as if the old verities might reassert themselves but for love or Monet there’s no coming back from there.

Things are barely rosier for the Old Masters (artists born between 1250 and 1821), albeit that given the paucity of high-quality works available, slightly different rules apply. The sector saw a ten per cent year on year decline in prices, but that figure was salved by Chinese Old Masters (eight out of the top ten highest-selling artists were Chinese) that helped keep the graph gradient relatively shallow.

The Ming Dynasty artist Wu Bin, active 1590-1610, for example, was responsible for the highest price lot of the year, Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock (1610) (below), which fetched nearly $77 million at Poly Auction in Beijing. Take the Chinese away, however, and sales of European Old Masters fell by 28 per cent to $282 million, a decline of 60 per cent in a decade.

Because of the increasing rarity of top-notch works, a single painting can salvage a year. Leonardo’s $450 million Salvator Mundi single-handedly ensured that 2017 wasn’t another year of decline — its bonkers price accounted for nearly half of the total annual sales value.

The sale in January this year of Sandro Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel (1480) for $92.2 million, the second most expensive Old Master work ever sold, might have a similarly distorting effect on 2021’s figures. At least the Botticelli shows that there is still a taste for upper-echelon paintings, when they can be found.

Nevertheless, 2020 was a bad year for the art market generally, despite the fact that generally the rich got richer during the pandemic. Predictably, online sales saw a boost, doubling to $12.5 billion and accounting for a quarter of the market overall. Nevertheless, though global art and antiques sales reached $50 billion, that was still 22 per cent down on 2019.

According to the Art Basel/UBS report, two thirds of high net worth individuals reported that the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting while millennials and women (outspending men in 2020) are ever more important.

As the repercussions play out, it is worth remembering that art and antiques galleries and dealers are major employers. Around the world there are more than 300,000 businesses employing nearly three million people.

At least the Botticelli shows that there is still a taste for upper-echelon paintings, when they can be found

So far most have proved resilient but should art fairs not return in the same magnitude, should physical venues become less viable as online sales continue to grow, and should client bases continue to shrink (they went down roughly 15 per cent in 2020), then the art business will take a tumble similar to that of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Quite what will happen depends, as does everything else it seems, on China, which accounts for 20 per cent of global art sales. (Britain is also responsible for 20 per cent, and US for 42 per cent).

However, both the US and Britain saw their sales fall by more than a fifth last year while China’s decline was just 12 per cent. And although this marks the third year in a row of falling sales in China, the country had a strong second half of 2020 and will be looking at the Biden presidency in the hope that it will remove the tariffs imposed by Donald Trump on the importation of Chinese art.

Last year China actually led the auction market (rather than the overall market), accounting for 36 per cent of auction sales by value, including at the top end where the US has traditionally led the way. So, if China was responsible for the downturn in the first place, it might yet be responsible for a recover

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