After the record breaking February 2010 sale of Modern Art at Sotheby’s, art world insiders breathed a sigh of relief. The $104.3 million dollar price paid for the rare Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man I” sent shock waves and media attention to the once again record breaking prices for artwork sold at auction. Unlike the private and confidential world of buying artwork through galleries and private dealers, the auction market is a very public and immediate gauge of the pulse and pricing of works of art. The high price has been attributed partly to the rare nature of the work.
Giacometti, one of the most acclaimed sculptors of the last century was notorious for overworking and eventually destroying works of art, and his brother is said to have gone into his studio to “save” the works. His oeuvre is limited and important, and the bidders at this auction knew they were getting a prize. Rarity in the art world is a very misunderstood phenomenon, and the idea of owning such a rare and important part of the canon of art history is a challenge and a unique opportunity available only to handful of collectors.
After a painful economic downturn in 2009, the February 2010 sale was a glimmer of hope to the millions who make their livings in this often-unpredictable world of art. The galleries, private dealers and auction houses see this type of record as a clear and certain sign that the art market is in recovery from the painful economic downturn. Top works were not readily offered at auction, mainly because collectors knew prices were down 30% and many lots failed to sell at all.
The gamble of having an important work of art fail to sell or “Bought In” would mark the work very publicly as undesirable and unsellable for a few years at best. Auction houses stopped guaranteeing sales at high prices due to record losses and debt incurred by high guarantees. The guarantee is an insurance policy for the seller.
After hearing many Gallery owners and dealers talk the past few years about how this has been the slowest period in sales in the last 30 years, I am encouraged that the art market still commands ultra high prices for these “trophy works”. Most insiders readily admit that this does not signal surefire turnaround in the art market, and are encouraged that there are at least a handful of high net worth individuals with the ability and desire to acquire these world-class artworks.
The Art Market parallels the real estate market, the stock market, the fine wines, and exotic cars and antiques market. Appreciable assets will always be in demand and the collectors with the financial capitol and the foresight to buy in at the right time will be the ones to continue to influence the art market economy and ultimately the history of art.