Bleak picture for the art world as auction houses fear UK fallout

Uncertainty caused by Britain’s prolonged attempt to split from the European Union, mass protests in Hong Kong and the US-China trade war are weighing on collectors as the top auction houses gear up for their major year-end auctions.

Their challenges are further complicated by the absence of works from big estates, such as the Rockefeller collection which brought in $835m (€758m) for Christie’s last year.

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“I am not consigning a single thing to London sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Phillips,” said Gabriela Palmieri, a New York art consultant. “My clients are nervous about Brexit.”

The geopolitical turmoil has caused disruptions in the global art trade, with currency fluctuations and new tariffs on Chinese art forcing buyers and sellers on other continents to recalibrate.

A contraction in the “masterpiece market” of top works is primarily responsible for a first-half downturn this year. Through mid-September, a total of 14 works fetched at least $30m, down from 23 such pieces during the same period in 2018. Aggregate sales for those works tumbled 38pc to $781.8m, according to an analysis of Artnet data.

The dearth of offerings from large estates, which generated more than $3bn over the past three years, will make masterpieces harder to find this season and have the biggest impact on the marquee November sales in New York, according to dealers and advisers who said the auction houses are scrambling for property.

“What’s different this season is that the estates that have come to market haven’t included works of art that are $50m to $100m each,” said Marc Porter, chairman of the Americas at Christie’s. “The most expensive objects are coming from discretionary sellers with whom we are still in negotiations.”

Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips “will have to get their sales lot-by-lot,” said Hugo Nathan, a London-based adviser. “It’s hard work and very expensive.”

Buyers will be looking for distressed sales and to capitalise on currency fluctuations.

“The pound is cheap and there may be some opportunities,” said Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser in New York.

Collectors also will have plenty of options in the middle market as the slack at the high end doesn’t appear to be trickling down. Christie’s and Sotheby’s said they expect robust results from the contemporary art auctions in New York this week. Estimates are down for key auctions in London and Hong Kong that will follow in the first week of October.

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