Monday, April 13, 2009


Signs of Life in The Art Market

Nervy collectors can find plenty of great deals on fresh, top-quality works, contemporary as well as classic.

By Alexandra A. Seno NEWSWEEK
Published Mar 28, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Apr 6, 2009

Ever so clever and tapped into the zeitgeist, the German publishing house Taschen recently sent out an e-mail blast promoting a new art book. KOONS FOR THE POOR! read the subject heading. At almost 600 pages, the book showcases the American king of kitsch art's "entire oeuvre to date, at a decidedly unKoonsian price" of $70, the e-mail read. (On Amazon, it's $44.10.) In 2007, the artist's "Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)" sold at auction for $23.6 million, setting the record at the time for a sculpture by a living and still very productive artist. Just last summer, a buyer paid $25.7 million for Koons's "Balloon Flower (Magenta)."

Talk about a comedown. Taschen certainly captured the mood in the contemporary-art market: why risk big bucks on a stainless-steel sculpture when the artist's entire collection can be had in miniature for $70? Whether or not they actually are, everyone feels poorer, and that includes collectors who are realizing they can get by without a porcelain figurine of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles, or a wall-size photograph of Koons passionately entwined with his porn-star ex-wife. They'd be better off putting that money toward a block of foreclosed suburban American homes.

The contemporary-art market may be down, but it is definitely not out. In fact, these unKoonsian times, like many downturns before, allow artists and dealers to be more creative, and collectors to focus on the fundamentals—like originality and timelessness—instead of on the buzz. At Maastricht in March, London art dealer Clovis Whitfield told the influential Art Newspaper: "Old masters are better than buying gold nuggets if you're looking for something that will retain value." The Dutch art fair, the world's biggest, offers both contemporary and classical. In some cases, rare old masters commanded more than a year ago. Whitfield, whose gallery declared Maastricht a "success," was close to selling an early-16th-century religious painting by Florentine renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto for €8.5 million—on the reasonable side for an old master but on the record-breaking end for contemporary works.

Serious collectors are finding excellent deals on top quality art. "Like everyone else, we've been hurt by the economy, so we'll buy fewer things and be more selective, but the opportunity to buy great things is outstanding," says American hotelier Don Rubell, one of the world's biggest contemporary-art collectors. He continues to add to the extensive Rubell Family Art Collection, housed in its own museum, a 15,000-square-meter former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse in Florida. He and his wife, Mera, started in the 1960s, purchasing works in good and bad economies. They acquired art by names like Damien Hirst and Keith Haring long before they hit the top of the market. Rubell, whose collection is international, is currently focused on young artists and the best works from those in midcareer. He thinks one of his best buys of the past six months is a piece by the 30-something California-based Thomas Houseago, known for mixed-media sculptures that reference traditional statuary.

Like most serious art aficionados, Ru-bell and his family spend a lot of time visiting galleries, art fairs and studios around the world. He believes that often an artist's finest pieces are from the early years, when they are unknown and therefore more willing to experiment. "The best art has new ideas, new techniques, new manifestations," he says. "When you have a very hyped-up market, there is a tendency to produce the same kind of work."

Repetition and a perceived pandering to the market eventually brought down what was until last year the hottest category around: Chinese contemporary art. Some Chinese artists became almost instant millionaires thanks to work that was probably bigger in scale but similar in style and theme (and more often involving Mao Zedong) compared to what they and their peers have been doing for the past 15 years.

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