Economic uncertainty slowing art market as Christie’s and Sotheby’s record declining results

Christie’s reports 5 per cent decline in sales to £4.8 billion in 2015

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 3:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 5:39pm

The global art market shows signs of slowing down amid a grim economic outlook, as leading auction house Christie’s reported its first decline in annual sales since 2009 and Sotheby’s warned of a loss in net income in 2015.

Despite headline-grabbing sales – such as the US$170.4 million Nu couche by Amedeo Modigliani sold to Shanghai tycoon Liu Yiqian’s Long Museum and the record breaking sales of Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at US$179.3 million – Christie’s reported around a 5 per cent decline in sales from 2014’s record £5.1 billion to £4.8 billion in 2015.

It was the first time Christie’s reported a decline in annual total sales since 2009. But it was still the second-highest total the auction house has ever had.

READ MORE: Auction houses place bets on Chinese buyers picking up Impressionist and modern art

Last week economics professors at the University of Luxembourg estimated that the art market had reached a “mania phase” and warned of a bubble about to burst.

But sales of Impressionist and modern art saw a staggering growth in 2015 of 57 per cent to £1.3 billion.

Stephen Brooks, deputy chief executive of Christie’s, told the South China Morning Post collectors – including those from Asia – were bidding heavily in this category.

“Global collectors are actively seeking this area, particularly masterworks of the early 20th century,” said Brooks, adding that digital sales of Picasso’s ceramics online contributed a great deal to sales of this category. Sales of Asian art were also up 9 per cent to £478.6 billion.

“The 7 per cent increase overall in Asian buyers shows that there is growing demand across many categories and sites from this audience,” Brooks said. “It also shows that the taste of collectors is becoming increasingly global.”

It was announced last week that China’s economy posted the slowest growth rate in 25 years with 6.9 per cent in 2015. Echoing such slow growth rate in the art market is the slow growth for Hong Kong and Chinese buyers. Christie’s said last year Hong Kong saw a 5 per cent uptick in sales and a 5 per cent uptick in buyers.

READ MORE: Auction house Phillips to hold inaugural sale in Hong Kong as part of Asian expansion plan

Overall spending from Asian buyers, who account for 18 per cent of global buyers, were up 15 per cent. Asian buyers contributed 30 per cent of total sales at Christie’s in 2015.

While China is slowing down, Japan is making a comeback, with a 12 per cent increase in the number of buyers. Buyers from Singapore also went up by 14 per cent compared to 2014.

Sales of post-war and contemporary, Old Master paintings, 19th century and Russian art, as well as luxuries including jewellery, watches and wine were all down by 13 to 37 per cent.

Private sales dropped by 37 per cent. Brooks said sellers preferred selling their works through public auctions.

Brooks said Old Masters had a lower total in part because a number of consignments did not come in.

Last week, Christie’s arch-rival Sotheby’s announced that it was expecting a US$12 million loss in the fourth quarter of 2015 ahead of its annual figures announcement next month.

The loss was brought by Sotheby’s gamble on the US$515 million guarantee on the sales of the collection of its former chairman A. Alfred Taubman. The auction house offered the largest ever guarantee to the family of Taubman in order to beat Christie’s to secure the consignment.

Brooks said it was too early to comment on how the art market will look like in 2016.

But Jehan Chu, art advisor and director of Vermillion Art Collections, said speculation across the contemporary board is over.

“I don’t think the tap is closing off. Smart money is being forced to get smarter and even more selective,” Chu said.

“But I expect further strengthening in the bluest of the blue chip contemporary artists,” he said. “Money is flowing to areas of opportunities ...[to] undervalued art assets that possess historical and critical significance.”

He expected the economic slowdown to have an impact on the middle end of the art market, but not the top end. But it will affect auction houses’ attempts to secure top consignments.

“The risk is that down markets prevent the best works and best collectors from appearing and competing,” he said. “Sellers won’t want to risk poor performance at auction for great works.”