The Auction Tango

A collector on whose behalf I am about to bid at auction just posed the following question: how many years back has the art market now retreated? To provide a satisfactory answer, one would have to do a formal statistical analysis, for which I have neither the tools, time, nor inclination.  Shooting from the hip, most people last November were saying 2006, and the market has certainly improved and partially stabilized since then, at least for the time being.  Having just perused representative auction catalogues from years past, I fear that 2005 is closer to the mark on average for Picasso prints.  But, mostly, I find it impossible to generalize in any meaningful way, because Picassos of different media and different price strata have behaved differently.  Rare and highly desirable prints still achieve high prices.  Good paintings still skyrocket (just look at the recent sales of Picasso’s musketeers on canvas), and great paintings still set world’s records (not for Picasso perhaps, but for Matisse, for example, as well as others).  And the YSL sale achieved such high prices that you’d never have known we were in a recession if that were the only economic indicator at which you looked.

And then, one must consider day-to-day, seemingly random variability. The art market could be easily reduced to facile analysis in the aggregate given number-crunching capabilities, but there is too much random variability to predict what will happen in any given case.  Just last month I bought a linocut (Femme accoudée, Bloch 922) on behalf of another collector last month for 80.5K at Christie’s NY, and but two days later another impression in similar condition sold for 62.5K at Sotheby’s.  So, go know!   I’ve seen plenty of instances in which the prices achieved at auction later in the week for other impressions of the same prints were both higher and lower than elsewhere in the same city a couple of days earlier.  But I was not proud of this turn of events, and wished that my crystal ball had been clearer.  Yet, had we behaved differently, the outcome of the first  auction would have changed, and the outcome of the  second auction could have changed.  That is, who knows where the bidding would have stopped for each of these impressions, had we dropped out of the bidding for the first one in favor of bidding on the  second!  In any event, my client was thankfully adult and was not disturbed, at least not visibly.  It also helped that we picked up a smaller linocut that day for a song (though that’s a long story).   Anyway, this day-to-day variability is certainly not unique to the current market.  All it takes is two to tango at auction, and there’s no telling in advance what any two people are capable of doing.

In the end, I feel it’s more a question of what you feel like paying, within reason, to put something on your wall, in proportion to how much you love it, and to what extent you are constrained, or choose to be constrained, by these uncertain economic times.