Recessions Offer Great Artworks at Nice Prices: Martin Gayford
Source:Bloomberg Author:Martin Gayford Date: 2008-11-05 Size:
Historically, depressions are bad times to sell art and good times to buy it.


Contemporary-art sales of the past few years were all about extreme wealth and vertiginous prices.

While stocks were rising and economies booming, enormous earnings had become normal for some painters. Damien Hirst's $100 million diamond and platinum skull was the ultimate example of bling excess. Now, suddenly, that looks very old hat.

As financial markets tremble, excess arouses public anger. Whatever our new leaders do, we are entering an economic depression of unknown length and depth. Art as plutocratic bling has had its day (for now). Auctions in New York are missing estimates, following similar sales in London and Hong Kong last month.

Historically, depressions are bad times to sell art and good times to buy it. A national emergency is the best of all moments to build a collection. Peggy Guggenheim bought a lot of hers just as Germany was poised to invade France in 1940.

Everybody, including the artists, wanted to get out of Paris -- except Peggy, who toured the studios, picking up bargains. She needed to do that, because she was one of the ``poor Guggenheims.'' Her father Benjamin lost most of his fortune in bad investments and died when the Titanic sank in 1912.

It goes without saying that most disasters are also opportunities for someone. Art prices are likely to dip. How much is hard to say. For those still with funds, the next few years might be just the time to begin a collection. But what to buy?

New Movements

That brings us to the other point about art in hard times. Slumps and depressions are difficult conditions for those trying to make a living from selling art. They also create the right conditions for new movements to develop.

The Abstract Expressionists -- Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko etc. -- came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. But they actually started in the 1930s. Indeed, it's possible America wouldn't have had a postwar avant-garde if it hadn't been for Franklin D. Roosevelt's job creation plan, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Without it, the radical artists would all have succumbed to malnutrition or sought other careers.

As it was, those leaner years proved a good time to incubate new ideas. Similarly, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud -- those twin stars of recent auctions -- were the cultural progeny of World War II and the austere period that followed in the U.K.

As for Hirst, Tracey Emin and their Britart contemporaries, they emerged under the tough conditions of the early 1990s. That, of course, was the time to be buying Hirst, when his works were closer to 500 pounds than 50 million pounds. And what have the recent years of extraordinary (and, as it turns out, unreal) prosperity brought?

Amazing prices, thousands of collectors chasing hundreds of new artists -- but little, unless I've missed it, that's truly novel and exciting. Perhaps the credit crunch will bring a new artistic dawn. We might as well look on the bright side.

[Editor] Mark Lee