Yayoi Kusama's Flowers that Bloom Tomorrow, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013. (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)
In his latest column for the New York Times, James Stewart wrote an article about how record auction prices mask a tepid market for fine art. I'm obviously pleased he did, because I've argued this case repeatedly myself. Meanwhile, Felix Salmon at Reuters has taken Stewart to task, mostly for comparing art to other financial markets and for not questioning the notion that art is an investment.
I certainly agree that it does a massive disservice to artists, the broader art community, to collectors, to all of us, in fact, when art is just viewed as an investment. But this reality gets closer everyday when people look at the clutch of trophy art sales each year and the rapturous media attention they receive and decide that art must be a great place to put their money. How many recent articles have suggested that the art market is on fire because of $50 million + auction sales, when exactly seven art works globally have fetched that much at auction so far this year, according to artnet?
I don't agree with everything that Stewart says either (art indices, for example, are certainly not comparable to investable, liquid indices like the S&P 500) but the fact that he is trying to provide some useful context to all the hyperbole should be applauded.
Salmon criticizes Stewart for mentioning that the Mei Moses World All Art Index has only returned 2.2% through November this year, when its decade-long performance of art is far superior, but why shouldn't we be looking at its performance this year? After all, this is the year we are expected to believe that the global art market is not just hot, but sizzling. It is not. Yes, art indices are selective and imperfect. They are, however, rather more useful than the anecdotal evidence about the tiny percentage of $50 million or $142 million lots that suck all the air out of the room.
Of Stewart's point that "many works are selling near or below their low estimates or failing to sell at all," Salmon says that this is "always true". It's obviously not a new development that some art fails to sell at auction or sells for under the low estimate, for whatever reason. Nor is it groundbreaking that some art at auction will be sold for less than the seller paid for it or that the vast majorty of art will never be considered valuable enough to show up at Christie's or Sotheby's at all. None of this is new. The far more important point is that no one ever talks about this. Sure these are anecdotes, but we should at least be discussing these anecdotes as often as we discuss our favorite anecdotes about stratospheric art sales.
But this doesn't happen and pretty much all the discussion is still about the trophy art sales that many reporters look to each year as vindication of the strength of the market. If we don't at least attempt to provide a balanced view of the art market, it it really surprising that people become fixated on the wonders of art as an investment?
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