An art market full of cracks is about to face a $1 billion test

The $1 billion test for the art market

A version of this article first appeared in CNBC’s Inside Wealth newsletter with Robert Frank, a weekly guide to the high-net-worth investor and consumer. Sign up to receive future editions, straight to your inbox.

The key May art sales at major auction houses are expected to be down from last year, as wealthy buyers and sellers take a breather from the frenzied prices of 2021 and 2022.

Art auction sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips over the next two weeks are expected to total $1.2 billion, down 18% from a year ago and nearly half the total for the May 2022 sales, according to ArtTactic.

It extends a recent decline for the art market from its post-Covid peak, when cheap money, a booming stock market and fiscal stimulus saw record sales. Last year, global auctions of fine art fell 27% from 2022 — the art market’s first contraction since the start of the pandemic in 2020 — and the average price dropped 32%, marking the biggest decline in seven years, according to ArtTactic.

During the first quarter of this year, sales in the contemporary and postwar category — the big money maker and growth driver for the art market in recent years — plunged 48%, according to ArtTactic.

The auction houses say demand from buyers remains strong. The problem, they say, is supply, as collectors hold back on selling their trophies for a better market environment. This spring, there are also no big single-owner collections up for sale, like the Macklowe Collection or Paul Allen Collections that helped power sales in previous years.

“We’re seeing what people perceive as a smaller offering this season,” said Brooke Lampley, global chairman and head of global fine art at Sotheby’s. “The proof is in the pudding. It’s the buyers showing up and what the work will sell for that will define our perception of the art market right now. And I expect the results to be strong.”

Price pressures

Dealers and art experts say the auction art market is stalled over price, with sellers not willing to get a lower price than they might have gotten at the peak of the market in 2021-2022. Buyers, meanwhile, are demanding discounts due to rising interest rates, an uncertain election year and geopolitical uncertainty.

“Sellers want 20% more, and buyers want 20% less,” said Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Group, an advisory and art finance firm. “There is a stalemate.”

CNBC’s Robert Frank before an Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaboration at Sotheby’s.

Crystal Lau | CNBC

Dealers say today’s buyers don’t have the confidence they had two or three years ago: Persistent inflation, higher interest rates, fears of a slowing economy, the upcoming elections and geopolitical crises are all causing many collectors to pause their buying.

“People feel hesitant,” said Andrew Fabricant, chief operating office at Gagosian, the mega-gallery and dealership. “It’s an election year, there is the situation with the Fed, are they going to cut or not. The cost of money is relatively high compared to a few years ago.”

Even buyers who have the cash and are willing to pay aren’t buying, because there is a dearth of top-level art coming up for auction, according to experts.

“Our clients have have a ton of cash,” Hoffman said. “The question they’re asking is, ‘Should we buy in to the art market right now?'”

Fewer pieces

While the spring sales typically have more than a dozen works offered for more than $30 million each, this year there are just a few.

The most expensive works this auction season include Francis Bacon’s 1966 “Portrait of George Dyer Crouching,”— part of a series of 10 famous and monumental portraits Bacon did of Dyer between 1966 and 1968. It’s selling at Sotheby’s for an estimated $30 million to $50 million.

(L-R) Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his Diet,” 1982, and Francis Bacon’s “Portrait of George Dyer Crouching,” 1966.

Crystal Lau | CNBC

Sotheby’s also has a collection of four paintings by Joan Mitchell, with two expected to fetch over $15 million.

Christie’s is featuring a large work by Brice Marden, who died last year, called “Event,” estimated at $30 million to $50 million. It also has an iconic 1982 work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, called “The Italian Version of Popeye Has No Pork In His Diet,” estimated at $30 million.

Yet collectors and art advisors say there are few if any “masterpiece” works to create excitement this season.

“They just don’t have the marquis material this season,” Fabricant said. “Unless you have something truly singular and special, I don’t think you’re going to have the same enthusiasm you had in past sales.”

At the same time, art experts say now is a good time to hunt for bargains given the long-term prospects for the art market.

“I do think if you can get deals with pre-2022 prices and if there is something of good quality, now is the time to buy,” Hoffman said. “My outlook for the art market for next 10 years is that it will be a fabulous investment. It’s a great time to buy, not the best time to sell.”

While auction sales are weak, sales in the private markets and galleries remains strong, advisors say. Sales of new works in galleries are less dependent on investment returns, and are therefore less susceptible to economic and stock-market volatility. The auction houses are also seeing strong growth in their private sales, where they broker a deal directly between buyer and seller without a public auction.

Christie’s sold a Mark Rothko painting to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin earlier this year for more than $100 million, CNBC previously reported. Collectors say selling a trophy work privately carries less risk of a failed auction, which can damage a work’s value.

“With private markets, you can be very targeted in terms of who you’re approaching, what type of buyer you’re approaching,” said Drew Watston, head of art services at Bank of America. “You can be very targeted about the price that you’re going out and asking for in the market. There’s great discretion so you can kind of go out into the market and test a price and adjust depending on the feedback that you get.”

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