Tobias Meyer, a chairman of Sotheby’s and worldwide head of its contemporary art department, has been watching the contemporary art world for more than two decades from the auction rostrum. This week and next, in the midst of a persistent recession, he’ll try to hammer down nearly $400 million of art. We talked to him about the market, who’s undervalued and who might matter next.
The Observer: What’s specific to 2010 in the contemporary art market that hasn’t been true before?
Mr. Meyer: Everything was in doubt in 2009. No one really knew if art would continue as an asset class. Is there a $100 million picture anymore? Is it a $50 million picture? The difference between then and now (because of some high prices that have been set) is that people believe in the solidity and tenacity and longevity of art again, apart from its desirability. Of course, I may sound very corporate, or preachy, but people believe in the value of art again. If you wanted to make one sentence about how different now is from November 2009, it’s that. You’ll see from the auctions.
Who’s the average collector today: what age, what industry? What do they consider ‘a lot of money’?
They’re all over-older, younger. A lot of money in my market now is $40 million. We have a red Mark Rothko at $18 million to $25 million, so we’ll know more after these sales.
Where are Damien Hirst’s, Richard Prince’s and Takashi Murakami’s markets, since their works, after being super-hot, are largely absent from the auctions?
Their markets exist and they are actually quite healthy. The market is not as sensational as it was. There’s not this feeding frenzy for Hirst, for Prince. But these artists’ reputations are made, they are here to stay, they continue to do good work. Even when we had the famous sale (of more than 200 Hirst works in September 2008), we couldn’t satisfy the market. People still want butterfly kaleidoscopes and the dot paintings.
But there are so many dot paintings, and he’s still making them.
They want 1992-1994. Clients prefer early dot paintings.
Power shifts regularly in the art world. Which group is on the ascendant now: ? Artists, dealers, collectors, auction houses?
A global platform is necessary to sell art right now, and the auctions have that. Then there’s the super-dealers, and the real super-dealer is Larry Gagosian. He’s opening everywhere. More gallery space is a significant advantage. That’s how you reach a global audience, by physically bringing the work there. If you don’t have a brand, like an auction house, if you’re not sending your catalog out everywhere, you need to be a gallery with global outlets.
Which nations are buying art? Whose tastes are influential?
Americans are back. Not for everything, but there’s a hunger that was stalled in 2009. We’re speaking to mainland China and Singapore, too. We toured all the highlights (of the auctions) to Hong Kong. Russians have been a little quiet-they have not pursued Rothko, Bacon, as aggressively as 2007. But they are absolutely starting to buy again, quietly.
What are these nations buying?
Chinese collectors are drawn to color. They love mature works of Abstract Expressionism but also key works of American Pop artists-and Richter. It’s the color. Not works on paper, due to climate changes. Russian clients love major trophies.
A few years ago, a generation of young artists were called ‘Andy’s Children’ because they were so influenced by Warhol. Who are today’s young artists being influenced by?
Joseph Beuys is sort of becoming the magician again in many people’s minds. If you go on YouTube, there’s this piece of his in which he spent three days in a cage with a coyote. Called I Like America and America Likes Me. It’s cool, it’s very now. It’s very fresh, it’s not shiny and golden, it’s more rough. That whole young artist crew, Dan Colan, Adam McEwen and Nate Loman, he’s the one they are paying attention to, are influenced by, now.