A Profile of the Art Market

The Economist discusses the current state of the art market:

The current downturn in the art market is the worst since the Japanese stopped buying Impressionists at the end of 1989, a move that started the most serious contraction in the market since the second world war. This time experts reckon that prices are about 40% down on their peak on average, though some have been far more volatile. But Edward Dolman, Christie’s chief executive, says: “I’m pretty confident we’re at the bottom.”
What makes this slump different from the last, he says, is that there are still buyers in the market, whereas in the early 1990s, when interest rates were high, there was no demand even though many collectors wanted to sell. Christie’s revenues in the first half of 2009 were still higher than in the first half of 2006. Almost everyone who was interviewed for this special report said that the biggest problem at the moment is not a lack of demand but a lack of good work to sell. The three Ds—death, debt and divorce—still deliver works of art to the market. But anyone who does not have to sell is keeping away, waiting for confidence to return.

Good thing then that other buyers have appeared in Russia, the Middle East, and China.  In fact China has increasingly used the art market to seek repatriation:

The sensitivity of the subject was shown up in February this year when the collection built up by the late Yves St Laurent, a French fashion designer, and his partner Pierre Berge was put up for sale. The auction included bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, two pieces that had been looted from the imperial palace of Yuanmingyuan by French and British soldiers in the opium wars in 1860. The heads, part of a series of 12 figures which dominated a zodiac fountain in the palace garden, had not even been designed by a Chinese artist but by a Jesuit priest from Venice who lived in the imperial capital. All the same, their provenance and history made their sale controversial.
The government let it be known that it did not approve of a public sale of the precious bronze heads in the West and did not want its citizens to take part. Even so, both the winning bidder and several underbidders turned out to be Chinese. One, a London-based businessman, had been planning to present the bronzes to the Chinese government as a gift. The buyer, Cai Mingchao, who secured the two pieces for EURO 31m ($46m), turned out to be an adviser to a Chinese foundation which seeks to retrieve plundered treasures. He announced very publicly soon afterwards that he would not pay up. The heads were quietly returned to Mr Berge. The government has since announced that it wants to catalogue all the pieces looted from Yuanmingyuan, which some believe is the first step in a campaign to reclaim them.

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Banks as Art Museums?

Interesting piece from the New York Times on banks and their art collections:

Deutsche Bank is believed to own the largest corporate collection in the world, with some 60,000 pieces of contemporary art. UBS owns 40,000 pieces, and JPMorgan Chase 30,000. Combined, that approaches the Museum of Modern Art’s trove. Banks have various explanations for their hoarding instincts: lots of walls to cover, clients to impress, corporate identities to build. Or perhaps just some past director was a devoted patron.
If banks were temples of culture rather than lucre, the collections would be easy to justify. As a financial asset, however, much of the art is of dubious value. Some 400 works owned by Lehman Brothers, including ones by Roy Lichtenstein, are expected to fetch only about $1 million at a coming auction. And it’s hard to believe Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst ever helped get an initial public offering off the ground.
At least some banks take care of their treasures. JPMorgan, whose collection was started a half-century ago by David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan, has a well-regarded curator. But many banks don’t even know what’s boxed up in the basement, having inherited artwork in takeovers.
Some do make an effort to share their artistic wealth. Monte dei Paschi di Siena of Italy invites the public to see some of its impressive collection, which stretches back to the Renaissance. The Swiss bank UBS lets the Tate Museum of Britain select from its collection. But these efforts don’t often come to much. The Tate currently has only three of UBS’s pieces on display.

The authors tie these large collections to the financial bailout.  I’m more interested in comparing these banks to art museums.   It make When banks purchase massive amounts of art, it becomes harder for museums to compete with the economic clout of banks.  Though the piece is critical of this ownership of works of art, I suspect one main reason these works of art are held is to wait until their value escalates and banks can trade them for tax exemptions.

  1. Jeffrey Goldfarb & Lauren Silva Laughlin, Banks Hoard Troves of Art, The New York Times, October 26, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com