The Art Shake-up

Buyers are coming out of their caves to take advantage of falling prices

The art market has been kind of like the housing market. It boomed and went bust, and now most artwork is valued at about 20 percent of its speculator-inflated 2002 to 2006 prices. The good news is that more people can afford to buy art. And buying they are, in a warming trend that experts say has been around for about six months.

“Something is happening,” says Marty Walsh, owner of the downtown Trifecta Gallery, where art sales have increased about 200 percent in the last three months.

Walsh surveys her new 1,200-square-foot space that feels like a New York City loft and looks out onto Charleston Boulevard, the Art District’s main artery. “We’ve had more foot traffic today than we get in two weeks’ time,” she says. It helps that the district is now listed on the bus route. It also helps that buyers can nab work by such up-and-coming artists as Brian Porray at moderate prices. (Porray’s pieces run from $400 to $3,500. Walsh sold some of his work even before his show opening on July 1.) The gallery had its best month ever in June, partially thanks to the sudden popularity of accessible artists such as Tom Pfannerstill, who carves wood into pieces of “trash” (think startlingly realistic crushed PBR cans and trampled McDonald’s cups).

Brett Sperry, owner of the nearby Brett Wesley gallery, says his sales are typically split evenly between new buyers and those who pay a princely sum of $350,000 for an Andy Warhol. Sperry’s gallery sells pieces from $200 to $25,000, but lately he’s selling more moderately priced emerging artists’ work than ever before. The price of top-shelf art hasn’t decreased, but the number of people with deep pockets has. “Most collectors are average people, with modest incomes, not Steve Wynn,” says Ryan Mennealy, co-owner of Summerlin gallery Ambient Art Projects. “And when they do make a purchase, it will be for much more reasonably priced work.”

Prices for the best of the best in a collection won’t budge, experts say. “Within each body of work, there are pieces that are just better than others,” Mennealy explains. But value can vary right now within a renowned artist’s series. Investing in some of these discounted big-ticket pieces is a good idea if you’re willing to play it safe, Sperry says. That is, stretch your dollar by doing some research and working with a gallerist. During the art boom, he says, speculators would buy a piece just for the name, knowing they’d be able to resell it quickly. Today, though, people are attempting to fine-tune their tastes. Now that money’s tighter, Sperry says, collectors want to buy the best work by an artist that they can possibly afford, knowing it will retain value.

At the gallery level, Sperry says the next three months are ripe for the picking for those who haven’t been able to afford expensive pieces before, or those looking for deals. But he says this might not last long. The three big New York art auctions—Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury and Company—will take place in November and might set the tone for all new pricing.

Mennealy thinks upcoming auctions might continue to put low estimates on artwork. “Because everyone knows the estimates are low, they are willing to pay above the estimate, and that makes the auction look like a success,” he says.

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