When the annual art bacchanal known as Art Basel Miami Beach kicked off last December, hundreds of extremely well-heeled collectors literally stormed through the double doors of the Convention Center in South Beach for the invitation-only VIP opening.
They raced to dealer booths and, within an hour, had scooped up hundreds of works--many of them large, ambitious, "museum-sized" pieces designed to attract attention as much to the buyer as to the artist.
As we now know, the U.S. economy was just then descending into the recession that was officially declared on the eve of this year's ABMB fair. And oh, what a different scene it was!
At the Dec. 3 VIP vernissage, there was no "collectors, start your engines" rush. Once inside, people actually looked at--and talked about--the art (instead of the labels) before they pulled out their credit cards. Despite lower asking prices--30% less at some booths--and a greater willingness by dealers to negotiate, many buyers put pieces on reserve, requesting hours, days and even weeks to think about buying.
Meanwhile, back in New York, with sales at the bellwether autumn auctions of impressionist, modern and contemporary art amounting to less than half the total of last year's sales,
"There's business being done," said Nicholas Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries in New York. "But it's obviously a new world now."
Could this be a good thing? You betcha.
In the past few years, prices in the art market soared to dizzying heights, fueled not only by hot money made in the financial markets but also by a batch of new collectors who were in the game as much for the glamour as for the art.
The overused line about art turning into a commodity couldn't be denied, what with professors devising tools like the Mei Moses Fine Art Index, financial wizards starting art investment funds and entrepreneurs publishing bulletins like "Skate's Art Valuation Letter." Even the National Bureau of Economic Research published papers like "Is Art a Good Investment?" People were buying art by .jpeg.
Art Basel Miami Beach, and the many satellite fairs that grew up around it, was a symbol of this trend--hip to the point of parody. Populated by celebrities, fashion-world divas and luxury-goods companies keen to sell their wares to the wealthy collectors ostensibly there for the art, South Beach during the first week in December was a place where everyone schemed to get into the best parties and the best restaurants.
This year, the scene was more sober, figuratively speaking. People were still drinking cosmos and caipirinhas and champagne, but the thrill was gone--many cruised around looking for better parties they never found.
For collectors, this situation is obviously better. If they don't have to make split-second decisions, if they can buy better quality work at lower prices, what's not to like?
"There's never a reason to buy a mediocre work of art, and people did during the frenzy," said Michael Rosenfeld, a New York dealer who was showing at ABMB for the second year. "We'll get back to real connoisseurship and really looking at art, not collecting for speculation."
(It's true that collectors who need to sell will likely have to swallow lower prices--but they were warned, or should have been, that art can be illiquid.)
For art, this could be a better period, too. It's no secret that some artists have learned to game the market. Damien Hirst, who sold a diamond-encrusted skull for a reputed $100 million to an art investment group that included himself simply to set a record for a living artist, is just the most obvious example.
With less money sloshing around, such antics may decline. Money, and the high prices of art, won't dominate the conversation about art. Non-glitzy, non-promotional artists will have a chance to be noticed. Some gallerists at ABMB, like Andrea Rosen, believe this is already happening. Lately, she's sold more works by artists of the '70s and '80s who've been overlooked in this overheated market. And at the fair this year, there were noticeably fewer huge installations.
The losers in this, aside from those flashy artists and art speculators, could be art galleries. A shakedown is coming. But as Mathias Rastorfer of Zurich's Galerie Gmurzynska predicted about the market's future: "It'll be a slower pace, and a less amount of sales, but we're back to a better price structure--at worst, prices of three years ago, which are good prices compared to what's going on in the financial world."
That's what's known as a soft landing, which in these times isn't bad.