Global Financial Meltdown May Have Ended Art Market Boom

The mood was frosty at London's Frieze Art Fair. Bidders were sparse at Christie's and Sotheby's. Even Andy Warhol's multicolored skulls failed to lift the art world's gloom.

A week of slowing sales and sagging prices suggests the global financial meltdown has finally ended the art-market boom that saw paintings and sculptures become must-have commodities for the world's elite.

At Sotheby's and Christie's — where price records have tumbled regularly over the past few years — the major autumn auctions of contemporary art generated at least a third less money than predicted, with many works going unsold.

"A lot of the froth and hype has gone from the contemporary market," Melanie Girlis, art market editor of The Art Newspaper in London, said Monday.

Art-world observers have been predicting a crash since the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis began rippling around the world last year. Many of the buyers driving the art world sales frenzy were hedge fund and private equity millionaires — among the first to suffer as the credit crunch took hold.

But prices stayed high, thanks in part to Russian and Middle Eastern buyers who were insulated from the worst of the economic woes by prices for oil and other commodities.

In May, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought two paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud for a total of US$120 million. Last month, a Sotheby's auction of works by Britart star Damien Hirst defied market jitters by generating almost US$200 million.

Now, however, the economic crisis has spread around the world, bringing stock market turmoil, failing banks — and plunging art prices — in its wake.

Christie's postwar and contemporary sale on Sunday raised just under 32 million pounds (US$55.5 million), against a pre-sale estimate of 58 million to 76 million pounds (US$100 million to US$132 million). Twenty-one of the 47 lots failed to sell.

Sotheby's contemporary sale on Friday raised a total of 22 million pounds (US$38 million), below the presale estimate of 31 million to 43 million pounds (US$54 million to US$75 million). The star lot, Warhol's pop-art paintings of human skulls, sold for 4.35 million pounds (US$7.5 million), below the estimate of 5 to 7 million pounds (US$8.7 million to US$12.2 million).

Both auction houses said they were pleased with the results, which some observers had predicted might be even worse.

Cheyenne Westphal, head of contemporary art at Sotheby's Europe, said bidding had been "rational."

She said that while pre-sale estimates had proved overoptimistic, "the sale was assembled in a very different economic environment from that which prevailed today."

Christie's auction house said in a statement that the last few weeks had shown that prices for artworks were "finding a new level," but that it remained "cautiously optimistic" about upcoming sales.

"In aggregate there's no question that there's a reduction in price that some people are willing to pay for objects. But there's also no question that there's an awful lot of interest in important works of art," said William F. Ruprecht, Sotheby's chief executive, speaking in New York.

Ruprecht said some longtime collectors, particularly in the U.S., see the falling prices as an opportunity to find a bargain.

"They are unique works of art. They trade once in a generation rather than everyday, so you don't get these easy, clean comparables between the financial markets and people who have been collectors their whole lives, who are passionate about these things and when they see things they really want they will continue to bid for them," Ruprecht said.

At auctioneer Phillips de Pury, Saturday's contemporary art sale generated only 5 million pounds (US$8.6 million), less than a third of the pre-sale estimate. The auction house blamed the extreme financial-market volatility, which it said was leading buyers to take a "wait and see" attitude.

Nothing symbolized the modern-art boom like Frieze, a four-day cavalcade of champagne, chitchat, celebrity — and, of course, art — that has become one of the world's most glamorous art fairs since it was founded six years ago.

The glitter quotient remained high this year, as everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow and Sofia Coppola to Abramovich and his gallery-owning girlfriend Daria Zhukova came to inspect the work of 1,000 international artists in a tented mini-city erected in London's Regent's Park.

The fair did not release sales totals, but said the figures had "exceeded expectations."

Still, attendees said the mood was less frenzied than in recent years, when many pieces were snapped up within the first few hours.

"It's like art fairs used to be," said Tom Heman of New York gallery Metro Pictures. "We're able to have much more of a dialogue about the work."

Some galleries even said they were glad to see the end of the feeding-frenzy atmosphere.

"It is nice that it's going back to normal and that it's time to talk about art again, instead of investment," said Claus Andersen of Andersen's Contemporary in Copenhagen.

The market's next test will come in a month, when Christie's and Sotheby's hold sales of impressionist and modern art in New York. Sotheby's auction includes Pablo Picasso's "Harlequin," which is expected to fetch more than US$30 million.

The last such sales, in May, generated more than US$500 million between them.

Some dealers remain optimistic amid the gloom. Hauser & Wirth, a leading contemporary art gallery with showrooms in London and Zurich, said it had had its best Frieze week ever, with several million dollars in sales of works by Subodh Gupta, Louise Bourgeois, Paul McCarthy and other artists.

"Quality (art) to committed collectors will always sell," said spokesman Roger Tatley.

"If it's a moment to separate the wheat from the chaff, the high quality pieces from the overinflated works, then that's a good thing."