In 2012, paintings and prints by Andy Warhol alone exceeded $380 million in sales. While Warhol’s sales total was the highest for any artist in a single year, there were dozens whose sales surpassed the $100 million mark last year, an unprecedented phenomenon for the art world. That is certain to mean there will be many serious buyers when the Los Angeles Art Show opens to the public tomorrow on January 24.
The popularity of high end, museum quality art has made it increasingly difficult to find collectors who are willing to sell their art. Art gallery owner Howard Shaw of Hammer Galleries explained at last month’s Art Basel Miami program that even art owners who could sell art for many times more than they paid for it often prefer to hold on to the art. Currently, U.S. corporations have over $2 trillion in cash on their balance sheets and often find that having even more cash is not an appealing alternative.
Sales at late 2012 art auctions spotlighted the challenges for serious collectors. At Christie’s sale of modern British art on December 12, one-quarter of the art offered did not find any buyers, about average for auctions in the last decade. But the prices paid for several highly sought after museum quality works were at levels rarely seen; two portraits by celebrated British artist David Hockney sold for over a quarter of a million dollars.
This pattern repeated itself at the December 13 Christie’s auction of Victorian and British Impressionist Art. While only two-thirds of the individual works of art offered found a buyer, 88% was sold based on catalog price estimates. That means buyers competed for the more rare and expensive works of art offered and shied away from art that did not quite meet the museum quality threshold. The result was often price levels that have not been seen before. New artist records were set for John William Godward, William James Webbe, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A new record for a charcoal portrait by John Singer Sargent was also notable, surpassing the $350,000 mark for the first time.
These trends are important for serious collectors and goal oriented museum curators visiting the Los Angeles Art Show to add to collections. If they see art that is a good match for their collection and adds value to the whole collection, they should offer a small deposit to hold the work for purchase. There’s a small chance they may have to forfeit the deposit if they find an even better match later, but that is a modest expense compared to traveling to many more shows to try to build out a collection.