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Winning and losing categories in the art market over the last 15 years

Which trends have gone up and which have gone down

The art market has seen astonishing growth in the last three years, fuelled by a strong American economy, a buoyant stock market, rising property prices and—until recently—internet-related spending.

Many of these elements were present during the last boom, the art “bubble” of 1987-1990, which is etched in the memory of everyone who was active then as a time of collective hysteria. Coupled with an outbreak of demented Japanese buying, the prices of just about every sector in the art market rocketed.

So have prices now returned to those extravagant levels? Last year new records were being set almost monthly in the fields of Old Master paintings, contemporary art, and in a number of areas of the decorative arts. These were often exceptional prices, given for exceptionally rare pieces, such as the £55 million for Picasso’s Blue Period portrait in New York last November, or the £19.8 million which Robert Noortman paid for Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an old woman, aged 62”.

These rarities apart, how has the bulk of the market performed? And are there losers as well as winners?

The Art Newspaper, using indexes created by Art Market Research (www.artmarketresearch.com), looked at a number of sectors in both the fine and decorative arts over the last 15 years, and came up with some surprises.

The indexes were all calculated on the middle 80% of prices made at auction, in US$, in nominal terms. The year 1985 was taken as the baseline and equals 1000. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for each sector is given.

For comparison, The Art Newspaper also calculated the CAGR for the Dow Jones Industrial Index, which grew by 597% over the same period. It was 13.8% per year, a figure which none of the art and antique sectors under review was able to equal.

Overall, painting (as calculated in the Art 100 Index, see p.71) has done well, growing by 223.5%: but it has not returned to its former peak, which hit 4598 in October 1990 (see chart, page 71).

Looking closer into the category reveals vast differences. Leading the field is Irish painting, which boasts compound growth of 11.7%, peaking at 6038 last September. Here is a category driven by the booming Irish economy and a scarcity of works for sale.

Impressionist painting trots in close behind, with 10.1% compound growth and a current index of 4564, but it has yet to regain its 1990 peak of 6267. Monet is a powerful motor in this category, and if you exclude his work (retaining Degas, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley only), then compound growth slows to 6.4%.

American art overall has seen good growth, be it in Impressionist, Modern or 19th-century works. The latter was less affected by the 1987-1990 bubble, and peaked last year at 3796.

Old Master painting has shown strength over the last few years, but only manages a compound growth rate of 4.8% over the last 15 years: however, the Art Market Research method excludes Rembrandt, as the number of works sold are too low, so the charts do not reflect the £27 million spent on two Rembrandts in the last four months.

For a major loser in this sector, look no further than Swedish painting (see chart), one of the worst performers of all. Also struggling are German 19th-century paintings, and, most surprising of all, Modern European painting (see chart).

For sustained, regular growth, the decorative arts produce more surprises. Overall, according to Christie’s Aggregate, (which includes Chinese ceramics, Continental silver, English and French 18th-century furniture and European and French 18th-century porcelain) antiques have produced compound growth of 8.5% and hit their highest point earlier this year at 3580.

There are, however, great differences between the various categories. One of the most marked is in Chinese ceramics, where Ming and Qing wares have been very strong. This market is fuelled by Far Eastern buying, and some quite startling results were achieved last year, triggering a peak of 3,650, and 8.4% compound growth. However one of the biggest losers is also in Chinese porcelain—the earlier, Han to Yuan wares (see chart, which covers 100% sales for the period under review).

English and French 18th-century furniture are among the biggest winners. Both show powerful growth. English furniture peaked at 5,082 this year, (see chart), while French furniture stood at 4,289 in January last year, with compound growth of 9.5%.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Winners and losers'