Well, the New Year has started in a rather subdued way in the Australian Art market. Certainly, 2011 was not a boom year, similar to virtually all other markets outside of Asia, and yet, Australia is seen as being part of Asia……so what is the issue with Australian Art ? I suppose that one of the main issues is that the market is over represented by art auction rooms. There are arguably more art auctions operating in Australia than virtually any county in the world per head of population. Christies and Sotheby’s both exited some time back, although Sotheby’s has licensed a local operator to use its name (for what is reported to be a not so insignificant amount!)
That has left 2 large local auction rooms, Menzies Art Brands and Deutscher and Hackett. For those who don’t know, Menzies Art Brands is the property of a cleaning tycoon who has over the last few years moved into the Art arena, originally employing Chris Deutscher, who was an independent dealer and is now one of the directors of Deutscher and Hackett (the opposition), as the head of their art business. Sounds incestuous? Apart from the larger local auction rooms, there’s the Australian licensed “Sotheby’s”, Lawsons (a Menzies Art Brands company), Joels, Bonhams (of UK fame) and numerous other smaller auction houses catering for the relatively small number of art buyers.
The issue with such a large number of auctions, particularly the larger companies, is that they prefer to sell art they “know” will sell, so you could be assured that if you look at competing auctions, you will see the same artists represented, often very similar images and similar estimates. For me, this makes for a very conservative art market with the larger auction rooms too scared to make a more controversial call by including new art or art that pushes the boundaries. Also, as in other Western markets, the auctions have stripped the lifeblood from many commercial galleries by creating in the buying public a false belief that auction purchases are “wholesale” and gallery purchases “retail”. Total commissions of almost 50% or more dispute this assertion.
The commercial galleries are suffering in other ways too. As in other markets, High Street rents have increased as owners are seeking more investment returns for their funds whilst the buyers have been shy in buying due to the hangover of the GFC, Europe and the insecurity of a “hung” parliament in Australia. Altogether, this doesn’t paint a pretty picture. And what of the art itself? Lets discuss that in my next post.