The current downturn in the art market is the worst since the Japanese stopped buying Impressionists at the end of 1989, a move that started the most serious contraction in the market since the second world war. This time experts reckon that prices are about 40% down on their peak on average, though some have been far more volatile. But Edward Dolman, Christie’s chief executive, says: “I’m pretty confident we’re at the bottom.”Good thing then that other buyers have appeared in Russia, the Middle East, and China. In fact China has increasingly used the art market to seek repatriation:
What makes this slump different from the last, he says, is that there are still buyers in the market, whereas in the early 1990s, when interest rates were high, there was no demand even though many collectors wanted to sell. Christie’s revenues in the first half of 2009 were still higher than in the first half of 2006. Almost everyone who was interviewed for this special report said that the biggest problem at the moment is not a lack of demand but a lack of good work to sell. The three Ds—death, debt and divorce—still deliver works of art to the market. But anyone who does not have to sell is keeping away, waiting for confidence to return.
The sensitivity of the subject was shown up in February this year when the collection built up by the late Yves St Laurent, a French fashion designer, and his partner Pierre Berge was put up for sale. The auction included bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, two pieces that had been looted from the imperial palace of Yuanmingyuan by French and British soldiers in the opium wars in 1860. The heads, part of a series of 12 figures which dominated a zodiac fountain in the palace garden, had not even been designed by a Chinese artist but by a Jesuit priest from Venice who lived in the imperial capital. All the same, their provenance and history made their sale controversial.
The government let it be known that it did not approve of a public sale of the precious bronze heads in the West and did not want its citizens to take part. Even so, both the winning bidder and several underbidders turned out to be Chinese. One, a London-based businessman, had been planning to present the bronzes to the Chinese government as a gift. The buyer, Cai Mingchao, who secured the two pieces for EURO 31m ($46m), turned out to be an adviser to a Chinese foundation which seeks to retrieve plundered treasures. He announced very publicly soon afterwards that he would not pay up. The heads were quietly returned to Mr Berge. The government has since announced that it wants to catalogue all the pieces looted from Yuanmingyuan, which some believe is the first step in a campaign to reclaim them.