The Back Room: Recession Ready


This week in the Back Room: How to know when the art market is headed for a recession, early sales from Art Basel Miami Beach, a speculative bubble bursts, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,831 words).


Top of the Market

Clouds on the Horizon

Photo by: Peter Titmuss/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Photo by: Peter Titmuss/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

“Can you feel that?” said one art dealer, arms akimbo, as we stood in the aisle at the Miami Beach Convention Center this week. “There’s no !”

For him, the lack of frenzy—no furious phone calls being made with hands over mouths, no overextended dealers wiping sweat from their brows—indicated that the art market is on the precipice of a slowdown. Of course, an ambient vibe is not a scientific analysis. But he was far from the only person looking around the corner for signs of what’s to come.

After three years of booming business, the sluggishness infusing the rest of the economy may finally be catching up to our industry, which is notoriously slower to feel macroeconomic cramps. Beneath the headline figures, the performance of last month’s New York auctions was middling at best. Meanwhile, early reports of sales at Art Basel Miami Beach were measured (more on that below).

We reached out to a range of experts—many of whom were around for the Japanese stock-market crash of 1990 and the 2008 recession—to ask for the signs they look for as harbingers of an art-market contraction. Here are the highlights—and our verdict on whether they apply right now.

1. People Can’t Stop Talking About It

“The most telltale sign is that everyone is murmuring about it sotto voce—at openings, art fairs, gallery dinners…everywhere,” said art advisor Liz Parks.

Verdict: Yes. You’re reading this right now, aren’t you?

2. Underbidders Disappear

A key to determining market sentiment, said former auction executive David Norman, is “noting the number of underbidders, particularly for lots with third-party guarantees; when in doubt, I rewatch lots on YouTube.”

Verdict: Yes. Aside from the Allen sale, many of the trophy works at the November sales went to their guarantors.

3. Third-Party Guarantees Skyrocket

“As auction guarantees are offered up to six months prior to the sale, I watch to see how much is invested and then sold off to get the best indicator in the health of the market,” noted former Christie’s executive Caroline Sayan.

Verdict: Yes. After Christie’s ponied up the guarantee for the Allen Collection, it found third-party backers for 33 works—cumulatively valued at almost $1 billion—before the sale.

4. Collectors Go Blue-Chip

“Established art acts as a safe haven for value preservation in uncertain times like this,” said art advisor Thomas Stauffer. “The massive success of the record sale of the Paul Allen Collection with blue-chip art is the evidence of that.”

Verdict: Kind of. The Allen Collection surpassed expectations, but sales during this week’s art fairs showed strong demand for lower-priced work by emerging artists.

5. Day Sales Shrink

“Results of day sales at auctions are the best reflections of the market sentiment,” said art advisor Gladys Lin. “The differences between the final sale price and the presale estimates of individual lots best indicate whether the market is pessimistic.”

Verdict: Split. Of the eight major day sales in New York last month, four hammered under estimate and four hammered over estimate, according to analysis by Live Art.

6. Collectors Ask for Discounts

“If the super-rich believe we are heading into a down-cycle, they expect discounts,” said Evan Beard, a former Bank of America executive.

Verdict: Not really, according to a few dealers we polled. People who wanted discounts last year still want them this year.

7. Charity Auctions Get Thin

“During the summer of 2008 I was conducting my habitual round of charity auctions including some in the Hamptons,” auctioneer Simon de Pury wrote in his latest Artnet News Pro column. While the affluent guests at these galas are typically generous, this time around “they were not bidding, and getting bids felt like extracting teeth.”

Verdict: No. De Pury said that his latest charity auctions have performed well, which quelled his anxieties.

8. Speculative Bubbles Burst

“The most important condition of this recent art-market boom is the external need of ultra-high-net-worth individuals to find an efficacious place to store their excess capital,” said art advisor Todd Levin. “If art prices rise so high they suffer a confidence collapse, or if other investment opportunities emerge that offer better appreciation, demand will fall.”

Verdict: Maybe. While some young guns are still flying off the walls, a number of artists who were subject to major speculation over the past year saw prices fall at auction recently. One glaring example is our work of the week below.


The Bottom Line

If you add up the indications above, our very unscientific survey suggests we are seeing around five of the eight horses of the art-market contraction apocalypse. Only time will tell where things go from here.

[How to Spot a Recession in the Art Market]

[The Hammer]


Paint Drippings

Wet Paint was still in the can at press time but most recently, Annie unmasked gallerist Benjamin Fernandez as the consignor to Phillips of a 2015 Amy Sherald painting that sold for a cool $2.1 million, and a offered a swansong to Manhattan‘s iconic Indie sleaze mecca, the Jane hotel.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since Thanksgiving…

Art Fairs

  • First-day sales reported from Art Basel Miami Beach ranged from $7 million for an Agnes Martin painting at Pace to $8,700 for small panel paintings by Lois Dodd sold by Alexandre Gallery. (Artnet News)
  • Despite a relaxed vibe at Art Cologne, which has now merged with Cologne Fine Art & Design, sales closed by weekend’s end ranged from a €950,000 ($973,250Alex Katz painting at Thaddaeus Ropac to works by Hannah Sophie Dunkelberg for between €3,800 and €19,000 ($4,000 and $19,500) at emerging gallery Office Impart. (Artnet News)
  • Abu Dhabi Art staged its buzziest edition in years, though sales were slow. Dirimart sold a work by Fahrelnissa Zeid to an Abu Dhabi-based collector for more than $100,000 and Lawrie Shabibi sold several works by Farhad Ahrarnia priced between $14,000 and $19,000. (Artnet News)

Auction Houses

  • We handed out our biannual auction awards following New York‘s marquee auctions this season, from the priciest work to the biggest flop. (Artnet News Pro)
  • Christie’s auctioneer Gemma Sudlow is leaving the house after 17 years to lead the expansion of Chicago-based auctioneers Hindman, which is opening a saleroom in Manhattan. ()
  • A contested auction of pre-Columbian artifacts at Paris house Giquello & Associés tanked, totaling €314,167 ($327,127), just 40 percent of the lower end of its presale expectation. (Artnet News)


  • Artists Katharina GrosseCorinne WasruthElmgreen & Dragset, and Jeremy Shaw are the latest to part ways with Galerie König while its founder Johann König is embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. None has connected their decision to the allegations. Meanwhile, Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova and Chinese artist Xiyao Wang have joined the stable. (Artnet News / Artnet News / Artnet News)
  • Amoako Boafo, whose painting  (2021) is on view at Gagosian’s stand at Art Basel Miami Beach, is getting a solo show at the gallery’s Madison Avenue headquarters in March 2023. ()
  • Marianne Ibrahim is expanding to Mexico City, opening a Cuauhtémoc gallery during the Zona Maco art fair taking place February 8 to 12, 2023.  ()


  • The 2022 Venice Biennale received a record 800,000 visitors despite hurdles mounted by seismic international events including the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Artnet News)
  • Michelle Weitzman claims Asheville Art Museum director Pamela Myers removed her from the board in retaliation for an on-the-record interview she gave to the  in which she described a “culture of fear” and “horrendous” morale at the institution. ()
  • Mark Godfrey is launching a 12-month training course aimed at curators from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The New Curators course will be free for up to 12 participants per year, who will be paid the London living wage for participating. ()
  • Jonathan Binstock has been appointed director of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. ()

NFTs and More

  • Beeple’s hybrid sculpture is headed to M+ in Hong Kong, where it will go on view from December 9. (Artnet News)
  • The Buffalo AKG Art Museum put 13 digital artists in conversation with historical works from the museum’s collection in an online exhibition, “Peer to Peer.” The resulting artworks by LaTurbo AvedonSimon Denny, and others are on sale as NFTs through December 2. (Artnet News)
  • Christie’s 3.0 is selling work by the “next generation of digital artists” through December 7. The top lot is ,a generative project by Random International and Danil Krivoruchko that allows the viewer to manipulate a flock of thousands of bird-like figures. (Artnet News)

“Pre-selling has nothing to do with announcing big prices half an hour after the opening. It has to do with our responsibilities. When we get a work—a historic work, or a new work—we have to make sure we are able to place it and we cannot just sit and wait, which we also cannot do in the gallery. Of course, before the fair, we contact collectors we know are looking for the works we are offering.”
—straight-talking dealer Thaddaeus Ropac busting the myth that galleries never pre-sell works before an art fair opens its doors. (Artnet News)

Work of the Week

Isshaq Ismail’s 

Isshaq Ismail, Sentiments 7 (2019). Photo courtesy of Phillips.

Isshaq Ismail, Sentiments 7 (2019). Photo courtesy of Phillips.


Date:                  2019

Estimate:           $20,000 to $30,000

Sold for:            $17,640

Sold at:             Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

Sold on:            November 16


It sure feels like eons ago when Isshaq Ismail (b.1989) made a splashy debut at auction with a brightly colored, blocky double portrait that fetched a dizzying $190,000—more than 10 times its estimate—at a Phillips day sale in London. He has since become a household name among flippers and since then some 61 works have hit the block, with prices reaching $367,541 at a benefit auction in Lagos this past spring.

But that debut was actually just over one year ago, and in a cautionary tale for ultra-contemporary upstarts, the market now looks to be feeling the effects of the flood of consignments.

Of the 19 works that have been offered since September, one was withdrawn, two were bought in, and none has exceeded a sale price of $60,000. (In an illustration of just how upside-down this speculative segment of the auction market has become, Ismail started out the gate with six-figure prices and fell  to five figures in April.) This portrait, typical of the quality and character of his oeuvre, was one of his most mediocre market performances to date, hammering for well under the low estimate.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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