Speaking to this concern, art professionals at Art Basel Switzerland last June almost endlessly cited the importance of finding fresh strong work. The first major fair to run after the dust of the crash had begun to settle, the belief (and selling point) proffered by many was that collectors don't buy in tough times without being offered great art. Interestingly, even with the amount of fantastic work presented, the fair so far exceeded people's expectations that many American dealers I spoke to had begun to describe Europeans as their "saviors."
As the October fairs finish up, viewing overseas collectors as the hungrier fish in the sea seems premature to some. Frieze exhibitor and Lower East Side gallery owner Lisa Cooley simply identifies June as the end point of one economic cycle. "People aren't scared any more," she told me, before referencing the Miami fairs which will occur in a little over a month. "The real test is going to be in December. I think it's hard to judge how all that translates until there's a big American fair."
I didn't talk to anyone who feels completely comfortable predicting what collectors will do—nobody knows—but I leave pondering the mentality of collectors to others nonetheless. The discipline as a whole confuses me. After all, art buying has never been about purchasing work purely on merit. Revealing as false the naive notion that market value matches art's intrinsic worth, an array of bobbles known by buyers as "safe bets" riddle most art fairs. These tend to be innocuous art works of varying merit and high price tags, executed by established artists. Anish Kappor's wall-mounted corporate art jewels, tacky, stick-figure animations by Julian Opie, and seemingly endless Marcel Dzama illustrations are among the many art fair staples watering down the good art.
While one can predict what subject matter, palette and medium will perform well financially, knowing how much collectors will spend seems not only based on economic climate, but the recent performance of a similar event or object. This extends to auction houses as well. Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips de Pury held their London contemporary sale simultaneously with Frieze, each of which generates a total sale estimate prior to the auction. Depending on the energy of the event, those numbers can be way off. In this case, Phillips de Pury sold £4,104,950 against a low estimate of £5 million while Christie's estimated a conservative £6.8 million in sales, but brought in £11.2 million. Sotheby's sale total was £12,757,125. Notably, while fairs and auctions alike may be doing better than expected, the numbers are still way down from last year. As the bloggers over at Art Observed remarked, Christie's estimates for last year's contemporary sale, ran from £57.8-£75.6 million.
Similarly down, Art Basel Miami, the largest art fair in North America brought in 40,000 visitors last December, a drop from 2007's 43,000. It's anyone's guess how well the upcoming fairs will do, though it's reasonable to expect gross sales to fall even from last year's numbers. Naturally, sources tell me that galleries have been balking at paying out the large booth fees charged by art fairs, fearing they won't make their money back. But a lot can change and already has in a very short time.
Perhaps European success will create enough buzz to solicit the attendance of a few more Hollywood stars. At the very least, their presence might provide subject matter that's a little bit easier to interpret.