On a global scale, experts say the effects of the financial crisis remain limited on a market that essentially plays to its own values -- the aesthetic considerations of art-lovers.
"The art market obeys to special rules," the head of Christie's Europe, Francois Curiel, told AFP. "But it is a global market and cannot remain untouched by what is currently going on."
And there are already some signs, albeit not yet spectacular, that the crunch is squeezing the market.
Artprice, an auction database, says unsold works at auctions held since September 1 this year rose to 39.2 percent against 36.8 percent last year in the same period. On October 1, prices had slipped 4.45 percent in a year and there were 20.5 percent less auctions in the last six weeks.
And auctions early this month in Asia and London were "disappointing", with more than half of works up for sale left unsold at times, according to specialist insider newsletter The Baer Faxt.
"Masterpieces," said Curiel of Christie's, "are seeing excellent prices, but sales will be more difficult for less exceptional works or those believed to be over-rated. Before this summer, it was never a problem to issue a high or very high estimate. But now it is."...
Last month's Damien Hirst sale in London smashed all records, ringing in 140 million euros on the very same evening that Wall St stocks sank, recalled Guillaume Cerutti, who heads Sotheby's France.
"The art market runs on a different engine" than that of finance, he said. "We sell unique non-reproduceable objects, it's a very atypical market."...
Nevertheless, auctioneers are preparing for a downturn and Christie's for example has already clawed back estimates on some of its November and December sales.
But "a real collector will always continue to buy and good artists will never disappear", said Gilles Fuchs, who heads the Adiaf association of contemporary art collectors....
"History up until now teaches us that in the worst moments, such as during the 1929 crisis, there was still an art market. I don't believe it will disappear, prices will drop in some sectors, but I don't think it will fall apart."
Then, of course, there is this report of this year's Frieze Art Faire from The Art Newspaper:
A noticeable chill descended on the 6th annual Frieze Art Fair this week, a result of autumn’s arrival and the grim economic climate. While crowds packed the aisles—ogling everything from glossy Damien Hirst butterfly paintings at Gagosian Gallery (D7) to a dingy breadbin with a mouse trap by Polish artist Andreas Slominski at Galerie Neu (B4)—the sale pace slowed as collectors held on to their cash and avoided impulse buying. Instead of the frenzied sell-out booths of recent fair editions, collectors took a more leisurely pace, realising power had suddenly shifted, and now they, not the art dealers, had the upper hand. It was the week when “I’ll think about it” outnumbered “I’ll take it”.
“There is buying but it’s discretionary,” said Glenn McMillan at CRG Gallery (E1). “Instead of buying five things, people are buying one.”
Though dealers were unwilling to discuss any power shift, collectors and art advisers practised their new haggling skills, winning bigger discounts and longer payment terms. US dealers, considered the most vulnerable, were targets for bargain hunters. “People are walking into US booths and getting a 20% discount,” said New York art adviser Todd Levin. (Ten per cent was the previous discount for good customers.)
“We are in a liquidity crisis,” said UBS head of art banking Karl Schweitzer. “Every gallery and auction house is trying to leverage quality.” His observation was borne out at Frieze, where there were fewer big installations and numerous, more saleable, paintings and photographs.
“This year it was safe. Every booth was like a display case,” said Athens freelance curator Marina Fokidis. “People don’t feel like buying something they don’t know. It’s a risk.” With larger stands costing around £28,000, dealers are under pressure to at least cover their costs.