This year is shaping up to be the second record year in a row for art auction houses in the Czech Republic. Although no single painting surpassed the top selling price from last year, the volume of artworks sold seems to have grown. According to Jan Skřivánek, the editor in chief of the specialized magazine Art and Antiques, says buyers in this country are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the offering at local auction houses.
"It looks like this year will be the best ever in terms of the annual turnover. We don’t have the exact numbers yet, but we expect that the combined sum that collectors and investors spent at art auctions in the Czech Republic will be over 900 million crowns (around 45 million dollars). Last year, 2012, was a record year and the turnover was about 880 million crowns. And this year looks like it will be even better.”
As you said last year was a record year. Did it surprise you that this year will surpass it?
“I think it did. Last year, only one painting in particular took care of the significant amount of the total turnover, when František Kupka’s painting Shape of Blue sold for, I think it was, 57 million crowns. And this year, there hasn’t been any painting for a comparable price. The most expensive painting of this year cost 18.5 million crowns. So, the fact that the combined sum is still higher means that there is a great number of works that sold above one million, or even prices above five or 10 million are more common than they used to be.”
And have you seen a change in the type of buyers and bidders that have been participating in the auctions this year?
“I wouldn’t talk specifically about this year. The trends and changes usually take a longer time, and I don’t think that there is any significant new group of buyers that are coming to the market. But it is true that in the past, let’s say, two-three years the buyers are much more educated or are willing to, or are able, to get good advisors and are also willing to pay top prices for important pieces. So it’s not as much about the name or style, but it’s about each significant piece. And an offer that is quite average, can sell for three to five times the normal prices, if the piece is truly significant. We are witnesses of this trend much more often lately.
“For example, this year, we noticed about 60 or more auction price records for individual artists, in all different categories. It was for post-war artist Mikuláš Medek, whose painting sold for six million crowns. It was for 19th century Václav Brožík, who sold, I think, for about four million. It was for classical modern and in all different categories. And not only in the cases of the paintings that already cost millions, but also in the case of paintings that usually sell for around 50-100 thousand crowns and suddenly some significant piece sold for 300 thousand.
“So, I think the buyers are more advanced and I think it’s a very positive sign for the market, that it has certain rationale to it, that people are looking for quality and are willing to pay for quality and it’s not just a game of names and showing off.”
Might this have something to do with the fact that the financial situation around the world and in the Czech Republic is not very stable right now, we’re just getting out of a recession, and maybe buyers are looking to invest, maybe more than simply collect, and are counting on being able to re-sell these pieces?
“It’s always hard to distinguish who is a collector and who is an investor, because even the most passionate collectors usually have somewhere in the back of their minds the thought that if hard times will come, I will be able to sell it. And on the other hand, the most cynical investors often become collectors as well, because they fall in love with the art.
“I think this phenomenon of investing in art we could see in 2009, during the first phase of the economic crisis, when investors were really looking for other options. That year there were more paintings by Václav Špála that sold above one million crowns in that one year than in the previous 20 years. And Špála is sort of the typical case of what you get if you want to invest, if you want to get something that will always have a market, that is liquid. At least, that was my reading of the situation, that those were the new investors that were just looking for ways of where to put their few million.
“The situation that we see in the last two or three years I think is different. What I said before about buyers being more knowledgeable, I think that’s more typical for a collector or someone who is in it for a longer time, who is able to distinguish other factors in the artworks than those which are purely economical. And also, from the investors’ point of view, art makes sense as a long-term investment. But the idea that you will buy a painting, have it for two to three years and then sell it and make profit from it, it’s not that easy. Just to break even you need the price of the artwork at the time that you sell it to be at least 30 percent more than when you bought it, which is quite a lot.”
So, you don’t really think the economic crisis or the recession that has spurred more people to buy art?
“I think it helped four years ago to introduce the art market to different buyers than those who were there previously, but now I don’t think the situation is such that someone considering whether they should invest in stocks or in paintings, would decide, well I don’t trust stocks, I will buy a painting. I don’t think it works that way at this point. I think nowadays there are good opportunities even investing on the stock market. So, those who invest in or collect art have different reasons for that than just the economical ones.”
And looking ahead, do you have any predictions for the next year about how auction houses in the Czech Republic will do and how Czech art will do around the world as well?
“Well, I’m always quite skeptical. I didn’t expect that this year will be better than the previous one was. So, I don’t believe that next year could be any better. And I think that for some time the prices will stay at the current level. We will still hear about auction records, about a number of paintings sold for more than 10 million crowns, but I don’t expect that any time soon we will hear about a Czech painting sold above 20 million crowns. There have been only a couple of paintings sold by František Kupka, who is already above this level, and there was one painting by Toyen that sold above 20 million crowns. But that’s it. And I don’t expect this price to be overcome any time soon.
“So, I think that the art market will do fine, but I don’t think that we will witness any dynamic growth. I think that if it will stay at the current level or maybe a little bit under the current level, it will be still a very very good situation and the auction houses could be only happy about that.”
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