CHINESE ART COLLECTING
Not everyone is deserting the art market. Artzine, a site which focuses on Chinese art, reports that
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction in London in early February had a few surprisingly strong sales. A Zeng Fanzhi piece from his “Mask Series,” beat estimates and sold for about $880,000 and a Yan Peiming “Mao” portrait from 2004 sold for $459,000. A Wang Guangyi mixed media piece with a bicycle sold for about $193,000.
But this is a recession isn’t it? Who is buying?
Zeng’s work was purchased by Jose Mugrabi , one of the world’s most aggressive collectors of works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst . One of the few benefits of the recession is that it reveals to galleries and artists those core collectors who will support their activities through downturns in the market.
I was on a bus recently with a marketing executive from a prominent Hong Kong gallery and I asked her how gallery sales were going in the recession. Were they bearing up? “Well,” she said “of course all the middle class who were buying for their walls have gone. It was ridiculous last year. At the Hong Kong art fair, we were selling pieces like checkout girls in a supermarket.”
And now? Are you selling anything at all? I asked.
“Thanks be for collectors” she said looking heavenward. “They still come in to get their fix, they are like addicts. They can’t help themselves”.
Gallerists have an insider’s view revealing how grimly compulsive art collecting can be for some. The justifications and rationalisations only serve to underscore the power of the drive to collect.
The New York Times has just published a fascinating piece delving into the motivations of the Mugrabi family. These collectors-cum-dealers own over 3,000 pieces which were worth over US$1 billion at one stage during last year’s market high.
As private dealers, the Mugrabis do not own a gallery or represent artists. They buy or sell works in about 100 art auctions annually, nearly one every three days. And the rest of the time, they buy and sell through galleries and fellow dealers.
“We’re market makers,” Alberto said. “You can’t have an impact buying one or two pictures per artist. We’re not buying art like Ron Lauder – just to put it on a wall. We want inventory.” He equated inventory with liquidity: “It gives you staying power.” In the commodities sector, the analogue would be making a run on a precious metal – in order to manipulate the price.
To ramp prices in a rising market can be highly rewarding but surely it is not quite such a good strategy as the market drops away. According to the New York Times, the Mugrabi family insists
they will be able to continue doing what they do, regardless of how the ground may have shifted beneath their feet. “We’ll become more like collectors and less like dealers now,” David said. “More buying, less selling.
A supportive friend points out that that they buy to protect the prices of their existing holdings
For the Mugrabis’ preferred artists, the family doesn’t merely operate in the art market; it is the market. “They’re so invested, they’re like the casino, not the gambler,” said the gallery owner Francis Naumann, a friend. What threatens them at an auction is not the presence of other aggressive bidders but cautious bidders.
“If it’s good for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, it’s good for us,” Alberto said.
But is that the entire story? The New York Times has something else to say.
The Mugrabis give the impression that, no matter how well they have played the market up to now, their compulsion to buy and sell art is not entirely rational.
Back in the early 1990s, when Jose was still making his ascent, he got “a little overextended” purchasing art, he said. Asher Edelman, a financier and art dealer who is acquainted with the Mugrabis, said that about five or six years ago, Jose told him over lunch that he was “nervous” about being overinvested in art. “I told him, ‘Look, why don’t you sell off some of your collection, stop buying, and you can lay low for a few years?’ and he said that was a good idea,” Edelman recalled. “Then he kept on buying.”
Thanks be for collectors indeed, thanks be for the Mugrabis.Contributed by Kate Cary Evans, editor Art Radar Asia
- Sneak a peak at the art collection of dealer diva Pearl Lam in her private residence video – Feb 2009
- Russian billionaire collector Mikhelson continues support for art despite downturn – Bloomberg – Feb 2009
- Which artists from Asia are in the Pompidou collection? Dec 2008
- Tips from a dealer – how to buy art in a recession Nov 2008 – tips from dealer Edward Winkleman