Contemporary Art Prices to Surge?

January 11, 2010

Earlier today Bloomberg reported that a recent survey among dealers and advisers predicted that highly desirable works by contemporary artists could surge as much as 30% in 2010. Lucian Freud was mentioned as the most likely artist to see record-breaking prices, with Philip Hoffman, CEO of the London-based Fine Art Fund, saying, “We’ve got clients prepared to pay for top works by proven artists like Freud…They can’t be bothered with the rest. World records will be achieved.”

Among the other findings in the survey: increased volume at auctions, several years for prices on works of average quality to recover and growth for artists from China, India and the Middle East.

“Chinese art is a powerhouse and I think you’ll see serious money spent, especially for classic artists such as Zao Wou Ki,” said Ben Brown, a London-based dealer. “You’ll also see more and more Asians buying Western art.”

Forecasting art prices is always a tricky undertaking, and we would be very reluctant to make concrete predictions for individual artists like Freud. A 30% increase strikes us as overly optimistic, especially during a period of protracted economic weakness when art buyers’ appetite for risk will continue to be hampered. Premium contemporary artists will more likely than not hold their own in 2010 – certainly not suffering great declines – but Skate’s looks for continued strength in older works, particularly those by the Old Masters and Impressionists. Given the stronger economic recovery underway in Asia, we fully agree with the survey finding that works by Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern artists will experience strong growth.

The Crime that Never Ceases – and Rarely Pays

January 6, 2010

The past week’s news has contained several items of interest related to theft of artworks. On December 31, 2009, Karen Gullo’s article in Bloomberg reported that a U.S. federal appeals court in San Fransisco had ruled that it will reconsider a September ruling in which it asserted that Spain can be sued in the United States by a California man seeking to recover a Pissarro painting stolen by the Nazis from his grandmother upon her fleeing Germany in 1939. At issue is whether a U.S. law that shields foreign countries from lawsuits filed in the states applies in this case. According to the court, the law contains an exception for illegally expropriated property even if the country being sued hasn’t broken the law. According to Gullo, “after the war, the painting was sold at least three times before ending up with the collection of Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, which is housed in Madrid.”

On January 6, 2010, it was reported that the Musee Cantini in Marseilles had recently been the scene of a crime involving the theft of Edgar Degas’ Les Choristes (1877), which was owned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and valued at approximately USD 1.15 million. This high-profile theft followed on the news of a major robbery of some thirty works from a villa in southern France, which were valued at nearly EUR 1 million. Farah Nayeri’s article in Bloomberg discusses the tendency for stolen artworks to eventually resurface. “No matter how skillfully executed these thefts sometimes are, they are generally poorly conceived,” said Robert Korzinek, fine-art underwriter at insurer Hiscox Ltd., referring to the Degas theft. “The chances of an eventual recovery should be good.”

While these two cases are obviously quite different, the fact that they exist at all highlights one of the biggest risks in fine art investment and collecting, as well as one of the most important ownership costs incurred by collectors. While Mr. Korzinek’s comments are valid and do provide some cause for relief, these cases are nevertheless an important reminder of the need to have professional due diligence when it comes to ensuring that any art investment decision involves works with clean title and provenance.


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