Thursday, October 01, 2015

The race for the bottom

The auction business is at the pointy end of the art market, the arena where individuals publicly demonstrate what art is worth to them. While there’s some horse-trading in the primary market it’s mostly around commissions rather than setting prices. That means when an established auction house announces it has been conducting ‘extensive research of the market’ to work out the best categories for its sales, it’s time to pay attention. 

The auction house is Webb’s and its research has told it to go with five levels of sale. The groupings are pretty much the ones it has been using recently (Paramount, Vision, Discovery, Affordable...oh…and Photography) but the frequency is a surprise. We’re talking an extraordinary 18 art auctions a year. As we say in Counting-On-Our-Fingers-Land, that’s one every three weeks. Whew! Simply put, Webb’s reckons the future of art auctions is a volume business and it’s going to lead the commodification charge in what is usually thought of as a premium market. While the twice a year Paramount events will include ‘important paintings and contemporary art for major collectors of artworks valued over $20,000’, the other 17 auctions will be selling works on average between $10,000 and $2,000. It’s a bold move. To turn over a million on the hammer price you only have to clear around 8 works in the $125,000 range, or 200 works at $5,000 each. That’s a lot of consigning, cataloguing, freighting, marketing, transacting let alone actual auctioning. Of course Webb’s will be hoping to land some big fish for its Paramount outings but with only around 10 percent of their auctions geared to the high end you can see where the energy will be going.

The big question is supply. Will collectors release big ticket items to an auction house so focussed on the bottom end? The quality of items very new comers Bowerbank Ninow have snagged for their first auction will certainly give Webb’s pause. Maybe it’s a good time to send someone up the mast to look out for icebergs.

Image: the iceberg thought to have sunk the Titanic