June 12, 2009 / 3:26 PM / 10 years ago

Traditional art fetching good prices in recession

BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Traditional works of fine art are fetching good prices despite the recession as buyers seek security and quality, industry insiders said this week at the Art Basel show.

U.S. actor Brad Pitt looks at the sculpture 'Puzzleman' by artist Matt Johnson of the U.S. during his visit to the Art Basel art fair in Basel June 9, 2009. The Art Basel art fair is opened to the public from June 10 to June 14. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Film star Brad Pitt grabbed the headlines by splashing out $1 million on a painting by German artist Neo Rauch at the show, the world’s largest, which is celebrating its 40th year.

“The sudden change of the market in October affects not so much the prices but the overall volume of what is being offered,” said Simon de Pury, chairman of auction house Phillips de Pury & Company.

“The catalogues are getting thinner but the prices are not necessarily getting lower. Indeed, some have held up very, very well,” said de Pury, a leading art world figure known for his ability to whip up excitement in the sales room.

More than 300 galleries from around the globe are showing works by over 2,500 artists from the 20th and 21st centuries at the exhibition. Works costing a few thousand Swiss francs by emerging artists are next to masterpieces priced in millions.

“My impression walking around the exhibition was that there was more going on the lower floor where the more traditional art is, and less on the upper floor where the absence of the younger buyers — perhaps the hedge fund manager who dares not show his face — was noticeable,” said Kunsthalle Geneva Deputy Director Victoria Preston.

FLIGHT TO QUALITY

While sales volumes are down overall and auctioneers are setting lower estimate prices to drum up interest for work, prices are holding their own in what collectors view as more stable and reliable segments.

This week, a work by German Old Master Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop fetched 1.4 million Swiss francs ($1.31 million) at an auction staged by Galerie Fischer in Lucerne — way in excess of the 150,000 to 180,000 francs estimated.

“Where business is doing well is in artists that have established names. But people are looking for top quality and objects that have not already been on sale at other auctions recently,” said Jan Scharf at Berne auction house Dobiaschofsky.

“The crisis has mainly hit contemporary artists — names like Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons,” said Scharf.

Several banks including UBS have closed their art divisions, which Leonard Bullock, a U.S. painter based in Switzerland, believes could be a bad decision because now is a good time to buy.

Earlier this week, auction house Christie’s told the Reuters Global Luxury Summit the downturn in the art market was likely to be shorter and less severe than in previous recessions.

There are fewer top quality works on the market as sellers are nervous they might fetch lower prices, de Pury said, and this restriction of supply is in fact supporting prices.

(Additional reporting by Katie Reid in Paris)

$1=1.073 Swiss Franc

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