The prices of contemporary art works have risen to astonishing levels in recent years. Insiders say it's because we have been living through a golden age of art. Nonsense, argue Ben Lewis and Jonathan Ford, it is a classic investment bubbleby Ben Lewis / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
The bubble in contemporary art is about to pop. It has exhibited all the classic features of the South Sea bubble of 1720 or the tulip madness of the 1630s. It has been the bubble of bubbles—balancing precariously on top of other now-burst bubbles in credit, housing and commodities—and inflating more dramatically than all of them. While British house prices took six years to double at the start of this century, contemporary art managed it in just one, 2006-07. (Over the same period, old masters went up by just 7.6 per cent and British 17th to 19th century watercolours actually lost value.) Contemporary art in the emerging economies did even better. The value of its sales in China increased by 983 per cent in one year (2005-06). In Russia they rose 2,365 per cent in five years (2000-05), while its stock market increased by “only” about 300 per cent.
Even these numbers understate the incredible tulip-like increases in the value of the hottest artists. The Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang saw his work appreciate 6,000 times, from $1,000 to $6m (1999-2008); work by the American artist Richard Prince went up 60 to 80 times (2003-2008). The German painter Anselm Reyle was unknown in 2003; you could have picked up one of his stripe paintings for €14,000. Now he has a studio with 60 assistants turning them out for about €200,000 each. Any figures for the whole contemporary art market are guesswork, though Christie’s chief executive, Ed Dolman, recently estimated that it had grown in value from $4bn a year to somewhere between $20-30bn in the past eight years.
But this bubble is now deflating. Sotheby’s share price has lost three quarters of its value over the past year, sinking from its peak of $57 in October 2007 to $9 in early November—close to its 1980s low of $8. The latest round of contemporary art auctions in London has gone badly. In October, the Phillips de Pury sale made only £5m—a quarter of the minimum estimate; at Christie’s almost half the lots didn’t sell; and an air of denial hung over the Frieze art fair like a fog. Upmarket dealers Matthew Marks and Iwan Wirth claimed to have clinched many big deals, but the reality was surely different. A leading New York gallerist was said to have sold very little and a well-known German dealer not a single work.