Is Art Love Really So Fickle?

Bringing Forth the Fruits of Righteousness from Darkness, 2008
Damien Hirst’s famous butterfly paintings
Currently on loan to the Cleveland Museum of Art

The two major art auction houses -Christie’s and Sotheby’s – held their Spring auctions recently. Record prices were set, record lows were recorded. And in the past year, some famous artists’ works have received zero bids. ZERO.

What’s causing all of this fluctuation in the art market? The international economy. And just like in a recession where we revert back to comfort food – meat and potatoes – so too does the art market switch from flamboyant Damien Hirst to the comfort of a Renoir or Monet.

Another factor leading this is the increasing share of Asian collectors holding up the auction paddle. Relatively new to the scene, Asian buyers choose “safe” bets, like European impressionists.

Other characteristics of art that sell in a recession is rarity. Count Jasper Johns in this category. Many of his works were owned by the late Michael Crichton, and when his estate went up for sale, people realized what they’d been missing and so they pounced.

Some classic artists who have enjoyed previous fame have fallen out of favor with new collectors – Pierre Bonnard being one of them. It was one of his works that had no bites at an auction last year. Edvard Munch (The Scream) is another example of an artist whose work is sputtering.

Undervalued works are also snatched up more feverishly in times of recession. A good deal of prospecting goes on, and surprisingly, Alexander Caulder’s works fall into this category.

Damien Hirst, who had his origins as a Young British Artist (YBA), has gone dormant in auctions as of late. As mentioned above, rarity whets the appetites of collectors, so perhaps this is his intent. I stared at one of his butterfly wing works (the series features butterfly wings that mimic stained glass windows) at the Cleveland Museum of Art this past weekend and I found myself up close, sorting the butterfly wings to see how many repeats there were, rather than stepping back to capture the piece in its holistic form.

The art market is fickle, but that’s what makes it all exciting.

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