Art Collectors Watching, Waiting (and maybe Buying) at FIAC
Collectors are looking and thinking. They might take action, but it's still too soon to tell. The action at Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain (FIAC) in Paris is deliberate: nobody's rushing to put their cash on the table. However, there are signs that some pricey and prestigious pieces may sell.
Last week, a painting by Piet Mondrian was put on reserve, at a price between $30 million and $40 million. One of Pablo Picasso's works was reserved, as well, at $24 million. Back in the art boom, these pieces would have been snapped up already, but dealers are saying that it's taking longer to complete sales at FIAC this year than last year. Even billionaires need convincing in this market, it seems.
Also, there's a greater desire to stay under the radar. Whether it's to maintain some privacy or hide the fact that they have the means to spend more than they like, some owners and buyers are turning to private sales. Bargains, thus, won't make it into the public record – sparing sellers the embarrassment and preventing the other holdings of all collectors from sustaining a measurable decline in value. If premiums are paid, buyers won't have to reveal that they have the cash to pay more, preventing prices from increasing broadly.
Fortunately, there are indications that the news out of FIAC may ultimately be positive. Though demand fell with the stock price of Lehman Brothers, the number of pieces selling at the Frieze Art Fair, which closed recently, was up year-over-year. Nonetheless, auction prices, the only reliable measure of art market health, are down. For the contemporary art segment, auction prices are down 50 percent, and the number of pieces going under the gavel are off 80 percent.
If the art market is looking for a hero, it may have one: Bernard Arnault. The chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA is rumored to have reserved the Mondrian piece, but Bloomberg News wasn't able to confirm.
Those interested in symbolism, though, are probably watching the Francis Bacon painting that's being sold this year at FIAC. "Portrait of George Dyer Talking" is being priced at approximately $40 million. Bacon's work constituted the last big bang of the art market boom, when Roman Abramovich paid close to $90 million for a triptych by that artist. Since then, the market for Bacon's work has plummeted.
The results of FIAC will undoubtedly have considerable influence over the fall auction sales that are scheduled through the end of November. A strong showing at the Paris fair could push auction prices higher over the next six weeks ... while a failure of collectors to pull the trigger could leave us all with nothing but dread for 2010.