Old master dealer David Koetser - TEFAF 2013. Photo: Loraine Bodewes.

MAASTRICHT - It would seem you can’t have an art fair anymore without a symposium to go with it, and TEFAF is no exception: after the success of last year’s first such event, which explored the investment power of art over the previous 25 years, this year’s presentation focused on “top artists and emerging markets” – a somewhat odd set of bedfellows, but one which lent itself to intriguing insights about the balances of power in the art world internationally.  

And when you think about it, the notions of “emerging markets” and “top artists” have more to do with one another than might first appear, sharing a common denominator in the form of the collector – ultimately the true engine of the market.

Hence three speakers at TEFAF’s symposium discussed what collectors are doing globally, with art economy specialist Clare McAndrew presenting her findings of the state of the art market in 2012; Artnet analytics director Thomas Galbraith alleging market manipulations by key players; and Old Master drawings collector George Abrams discussing why none of these things, for a true collector, matter anyway.

For those who were unable to attend the symposium, here are some of the key points:

1.    America re-established itself as the number one player in the art market in 2012, according to McAndrew, while China’s hyperactive art market, as anticipated, plunged nearly 25 percent. Reasons for the China fall are complex, but reflect not only the new challenges to the Chinese economy, but the fallout from previously reported auction sales as buyers failed to pay up.

2.    While global sales contracted as a result of the China slowdown, American buyers took up much of the slack, with sales increasing five percent over 2011 to €14.2 billion. The lion’s share of this came from purchases of post-war and contemporary art.

3.    Post-war and contemporary art sales globally came to about €4.5 billion last year, according to Andrews. For comparison’s sake, this was the amount the French government reported as France’s balance of payments deficit in 2010.

4.    Brazil’s art sales, which McAndrew examined for the first time this year, are hindered by import taxes as high as 45 percent. Such taxes make it impossible for foreign galleries to operate or for museums to buy international art, said McAndrew.

5.    While the art market generally parallels the world market, wealth does not always equate with a thriving art scene, as indicated by a return to secure art centers in New York and London.

6.    Based on data Galbraith examined, the art market showed an “amazing difference” in performance against the FTSE in the past ten years.

7.    According to Galbraith, “market manipulation is rife and present,” though he admits “it can’t be proven.

8.    Determining who the “top-performing artists” might be demands analyzing sales on a variety of variables, not just “the top ten sales” of the year. Consider, too, the return on investment, or ROI, which can provide a very different list of names than those that appear when looking only at the top sales figures.

9.    Factors to look at when purchasing for investment include the artist’s exhibition history (which Galbraith defines as “the number of single-artist exhibitions or retrospectives at internationally significant galleries or museums”); total sales figures for the past year and over the past ten years; number of lots sold (buy-through rate) vs. unsold (buy-in rate).

But in the end, as George Abrams, whose collection of Old Master drawings is possibly unrivaled anywhere in the world, says, ignore all of the above. “The statistics are not what you think about,” said Abrams. “You think about being moved. The experience is to love it instantly.”