New York Times | LONDON — The art market tends to be written and talked about as a singular thing. The headline-grabbing millions spent on postwar and contemporary trophies dominate perceptions of how art is bought and sold, leaving more earth-bound collecting short of attention.
The cultured professional classes of the United States and Europe have always spent money on art and continue to do so. However, the latest market report issued by the European Fine Art Foundation indicates that average fine art auction prices increased by 82 percent and 100 percent, respectively, in Britain and the United States from 2009 to 2013, far outpacing the growth rate of many professional salaries since the 2008 financial crash.
“The market has shifted,” said Anders Petterson, managing director of the London-based art analysis firm ArtTactic. “People who in the 1990s would buy paintings are now having to look at prints and works on paper.”
The tale of these two markets could be seen last week in London. On Thursday, Christie’s previewed an exhibition of 65 works by Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter at its private sales gallery. Both of these influential German artists, who became friends in the 1960s, regularly feature in the Top 10 price lists of contemporary art sales in London and New York, and both are the subjects of one-man retrospectives at major museums this year. Eager to cash in on the bounce in interest that will follow the Polke show currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Richter opening at the Fondation Beyeler, in Basel, Switzerland, on May 18, collectors have released 35 works for sale at Christie’s Mayfair gallery space on New Bond Street.
The experimental paintings that the artists made in the 1980s are priced as high as $3 million, typifying what wealthy international collectors are buying at the upper end of the market.
The previous evening, just down the road but seemingly a world away, a crowd of 700 less well-heeled collectors turned up at the Royal Academy of Arts for the private view of the 29th annual London Original Print Fair. The Soho dealer Karsten Schubert sold several versions of the vibrant 2013 Bridget Riley screenprint “After Rajasthan” for 4,000 pounds, or $6,720, each. The Oxfordshire-based gallery Elizabeth Harvey-Lee was asking the same price for a version, albeit damaged, of Hendrik Goltzius’s 1588 chiaroscuro woodcut “Hercules and Cacus,” one of the stars of the current “Renaissance Impressions” show at the Royal Academy through June 8.
Prints, regardless of period, have a reputation for being affordable and pleasurable, but not something that will earn a speculator a fast buck. These are the sort of things discerning buyers of art with a limited budget enjoy on their walls.
“The prices don’t change much, but there’s always somebody who wants one,” said Gordon Cooke, acting managing director of the Bond Street-based Fine Art Society, one of 48 dealers exhibiting in the print fair, which ran through Sunday. “Things find a niche.”
But as Mr. Cooke, who co-founded the London fair, points out, buying and selling prints hasn’t always been considered the poor relation of the art market as it is by many today.
In the 1920s, American speculators awash with cash from a soaring stock market were flipping limited-edition prints by D.Y. Cameron and other all-but-forgotten British artists for enormous sums of money. “Like to see my etchings?” supposedly became a well-worn chat-up line. The etching boom reached its zenith at Sotheby’s in London in May 1929, when Cameron’s print of medieval cathedral windows, “The Five Sisters, York Minster,” sold for £640. That sum would have bought a three-bedroom house in the suburbs of London, equivalent to between $1 million and $1.5 million today. At the time, no painting by Picasso or Modigliani, whose auction markets were in their infancy, had ever sold for that kind of money. Six months later, the American stock market crashed and with it the market for contemporary British etchings.
That Cameron print is now worth about £2,000.
Other more famous printmakers still command high prices. One who has stood the test of time is the American-born, British-based artist James McNeill Whistler. The Fine Art Society was showing Whistler’s 1889 etching “The Embroidered Curtain,” priced at £120,000.
Whistler is widely acknowledged as one of the few first-rate artists to be a first-rate printmaker. Even so, his critically lauded monochromatic etchings are now less sought-after than the larger color prints by Edvard Munch and Picasso and portfolios by Andy Warhol, which routinely fetch top prices at Sotheby’s and Christie’s specialist print sales. A complete set of 10 of Warhol’s 1972 “Mao” prints, aside from the official published edition of 300, sold for £506,500 at Sotheby’s on March 18.
“These days people want big colorful pictures,” said Anthony McNerney, director of contemporary art at the London-based art adviser Gurr Johns. Mr. McNerney, along with many professionals in the art market, acknowledges that Mr. Richter’s abstracts are the commercial ne plus ultra of that category. “I saw one recently that had been bought for £1.5 million in 2000,” he said. “It’s now worth about £20 million. You can’t get that kind of return if you’re spending just a few thousand pounds.”
Mr. McNerney could have added that mainstream auction houses charge owners of lots priced at less than £10,000 about 30 percent in seller’s fees, while owners of works priced much higher, for example at £20 million, are charged nothing.
Where does that leave a lower-level art investor?
“People look too much at auction results,” Mr. McNerney said. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”
And so with “investment grade” works beyond the reach of most wallets, buyers at the lower end of the market are having to fall back in love with the idea that art is a commodity that generates something more than mere financial returns.
“Art gives you something every day,” said Pilar Ordovas, a London-based dealer and former European head of Christie’s contemporary art department. “There are several art markets, and it is possible to buy good things that are prints and works on paper. It’s all about developing an eye and not ticking boxes and thinking about stocks and shares.”