Art auction houses are looking to protect themselves. Lacking a local "enforcer" to find once eager collectors and shake them down for every last dollar, the likes of Sotheby's and Christie's will spend the coming fortnight managing expectations while trying to eke out a living. Atop the agenda this season is the notion of protecting price levels for Impressionist, modern and contemporary pieces.
Reality has struck.
Sotheby's has revealed a sales target of $179 million to $256 million for the spring. Last fall, the auction house hit $411 million – which is paltry compared to the $742 million take at this time last year. The showpiece now is "Baroque Egg with Bow," a sculpture by Jeff Koons, which carries a Sotheby's estimate of $6 million. While this sounds rich for today's market, the house almost quadrupled that amount with a sculpture from the same artist in 2007.
For those who haven't been keeping score, 2007 for the art world was like 1999 for technology people.
By reinforcing concern through modest estimates and carefully selected lots, the major (and smaller auction houses) are subtly positioning themselves for any unexpected support. A strong spring auction – as measured by current economic conditions – could cause global art market confidence to rebound. A turn for the worse, however, would be exacerbated by already depressed hopes.