Is the art market showing signs of life again?

The fine-art market has shrunk for the past five quarters. With prices plunging, auction houses have been looking for any positive sign they can find. ArtPrice is chiming in with its own bit of good news. The Art Price Global Index, it says, increased 4.97 percent in the second quarter.

While this change in direction doesn't undo last year's market turmoil, it may point to a slow recovery. Progress of the recovery continues to be debated hotly, but it's cited as the major factor in the Art Price Global Index's uptick, and the resulting increase in morale among dealers, auction houses and collectors could provide the necessary momentum necessary to give this trend legs.

ArtPrice puts its Art Market Confidence Index, a measure of art-market participant sentiment, up 20 points since the end of the first quarter. Through 2009, auction houses have relied on a set of lower expectations to measure success, typically whether an auction's performance reached pre-auction sales estimates. While several hit the low end of the range provided for each auction, year-over-year sales relative to comparable auctions in 2008 tended to be down 70 percent. Inventory available for auction suffered, as many collectors held back their stronger pieces for more lucrative returns in a stronger market.

Auction houses like Sotheby's (BID) and Christie's (CTG) experimented with selling lower-quality pieces -- rather than Old Masters or the hot contemporary artists, the Francis Bacons and Pablo Picassos that used to guarantee high sales -- as well as offering fewer lots and eschewing price guarantees. This year, 79 percent of the lots sold moved for less than €5,000 (or $7,150), up from 73 percent in 2008.

This has led to a modest improvement, as 49 percent of 2009 pieces moved past the low end of presale estimates, compared to 44 percent last autumn. Of course, this only perpetuates the notion of "success by lower expectations," rather than heralding a genuine recovery.

The hottest categories before the financial crisis, postwar and contemporary art, remain under pressure. Postwar sales fell 9 percent, contemporary 4 percent, in the second quarter of 2008, but they seem to have weathered the art-market crisis and could benefit from a long recovery. Even pieces bought speculatively in 2007 and 2008 probably wouldn't wind up under the gavel again for a few years, sparing their buyers the prospect of having to sell at losses.

The New York market showed strength into the midpoint of 2009, with a 10 percent increase in art prices, following a 27 percent plunge in 2008. But more important than the numbers is that the art community is ready for the recession to end. Sotheby's CFO has proclaimed the bottom, and ArtPrice is reporting increases in sale prices and confidence.

Nobody likes a loss, and after the heady days of 2007 and 2008, everybody wants the thrill back. Unfortunately, the true test is in front of us. This fall's auction season will determine whether the art market is in recovery, or if we're all just wishing our hardest for something better.

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