Being briefly in New York City, I stopped in to visit the pre-auction viewing for the Contemporary Art sale at Christie’s. I was stunned but not surprised at how many quality works were on sale, compared to the historical average, having visited the same event numerous times in the past. Pre-crash, for instance, most of the sale was mediocre junk, albeit by big names, sold under the pretext that those names were worth owning for their own sake. And there were plenty of recycled mediocre works from the 1980s, say the dross by painters such as Eric Fischl (who does have some very good works, though a minority of his overall ouevre). This time I saw dozens of pieces which impressed me as good enough to be on display at first-rate museums, and those pieces filled even the “lesser” rooms upstairs rather than just the main showcase rooms.
The quality of the supply to me suggests that “finance” thinks trouble may be on the horizon. Otherwise, why sell now? Why not hold on to the best pieces, as collectors did in the old days, and wait for them to appreciate? Somebody senses a market peak. That said, finance is not always right, least of all about itself.
In any case the prices for the good works are indeed quite high. A very good Robert Ryman “white painting” (yes, that means it is white, more or less only white, but the textures are very good) these days goes for $8-12 million, as does a good de Kooning from his Alzheimer’s period. Those price estimates are without the buyer’s premia. A Twombly chalkboard painting was estimated in the $35-55 million range and no one was even bothering to look at it.
Whether or not you think these prices are justifiable on aesthetic grounds, quality Old Masters are far cheaper and arguably more likely to hold their value. For 200k (not long ago for 60-80k) you can buy a very good Delacroix painting and it is easier to hang and transport than many of these over-scaled contemporary works. I interpret this price difference as a status gradient. In the Old Masters field, you can’t hope to assemble a world class collection, as too many of the very best works are already in museums. In other words, the Mona Lisa will always make your collection seem unimpressive. You can buy excellent older works at excellent prices, but that alone doesn’t seem to count for much. In the Contemporary field, if you are wealthy, you really can buy top works from say the top half dozen artists — or more — in that area. Plus you can have the artists to your dinner parties, the works match how younger finance types like to decorate their apartments and homes, and their larger size makes them splashier purchases for a lot of museums.
Buyer’s hint: Those Alexander Calder sketches are underpriced at $40-60k, there is still time to bid on them.