The Rise of the Emerging Art Economy
The art market always follows the money. These days that means courting new collectors from emerging economic superpowers. Auction houses aren't just wooing them with Warhols. They're also whipping up buzz about art from their native countries. And it's working.
The value of pieces from Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC countries, has skyrocketed in recent years, mirroring each country's economic growth. Auction houses have helped feed the frenzy by extracting BRIC art from their other categories, hosting specialized sales designed to spark the patriotism of the BRIC nouveau riche. Sotheby's (BID) has more than doubled its BRIC-oriented offerings in the past decade. Christie's, which says it has Chinese-speaking staff members at all its auction houses, has also significantly upped its collection. In April, Phillips de Pury held the first auction dedicated exclusively to art from all four BRIC nations, bringing in nearly $11 million. Another BRIC auction is scheduled for next April in London.
This fall, Christie's New York will kick off its fall auction season—and the twice-per-year event insiders call "Asia Week"—with a major sale on Sept. 14-16 of Indian and Southeast Asian art, as well as Chinese art and ceramics. Also on Sept. 14, Sotheby's New York will have its own significant Asian auction. In the following two months both Sotheby's and Christie's will host a string of auctions in New York and London dedicated to Latin American, Russian, Indian, and Chinese art. Sotheby's anticipates generating more than $23 million in sales from Asia Week alone (up $4 million from last year). Christie's expects about $56 million, up more than $19 million from 2009.
Among Christie's major Asia Week highlights is an untitled abstract portrait by the late Indian painter F.N. Souza, which is expected to fetch between $1.2 million and $1.8 million. (In June, Christie's auction of works from his estate yielded more than $8 million.) Christie's also has high hopes for archaic Chinese bronzes; some lots are expected to bring in upwards of $1 million apiece.
Sotheby's most anticipated offerings include Subodh Gupta's OK Mili (2004), a hanging sculpture comprising scores of stainless-steel tiffin boxes. Gupta has already benefited from the rise in his country's art economy. At a 2006 Christie's sale, OK Mili sold for $144,000, crushing its presale estimate of $25,000. Sotheby's says it hopes to get between $250,000 and $350,000 for it this time around.
Gupta may follow in the footsteps of his wife, Bharti Kher, another newly minted star. Sotheby's London recently sold Kher's The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), a sculpture of a dying elephant covered with bindi. It fetched $1.49 million—a record for a female contemporary Indian artist at auction. Other ascendant BRIC artists include Russian painters Komar & Melamid, whose Meeting Between Solzhenitsyn and BÖll at Rostropovich's Country House (1972) was purchased for more than $1 million at Phillips de Pury New York last year. At the same sale, Brazilian conceptualist Lygia Clark's geometric aluminum sculpture, Bicho (1960), sold for more than $500,000. "What's amazing about the contemporary art market is how totally global it has become over the last five years," says Simon de Pury, chairman and chief auctioneer at Phillips. "Before, it was still a market totally dominated by North American and West European art."
Some believe these sales are simply the result of the art world's latest marketing ploy. Even so, as the business struggles back to pre-recession activity, few are complaining. "In a changing market, auction houses are more focused on finding clever ways of repackaging material that might otherwise get lost [in more general modern and contemporary sales]," says New York art adviser Allan Schwartzman, who counts Brazilian mega-collector Bernardo Paz among his clients. "When you package this material together, there's a new gloss."
New York's Chinese and Indian art and antiquities galleries will be holding exhibitions of their own during Asia Week with hopes of attracting visiting connoisseurs. Museums are also reinforcing the trend with more BRIC-dedicated shows than ever. "Whenever there is an economic boom in a place, it usually goes hand in hand with a creative burst of energy," de Pury says. "And I think this all is going to continue." At the very least, an economic boom has given new value to these bursts.