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TEFAF report heralds dominance of China... but the caveats remain

26 March 2012Written by Ivan Macquisten

So what is the most important revelation in this year’s TEFAF report?

Certainly the one that has grabbed all the headlines is the announcement that China has overtaken the United States to become the world's largest art market.

According to the report, The International Art Market in 2011: Observations on the Art Trade over 25 Years, in 2011 China managed to nudge the US into second place, accounting for 30% of the €46.1bn take, compared to 29% Stateside.

At least as important to the London-based industry is that the UK share remained unchanged at 22% - but remember that was in an expanding market that saw 7% added to global sales, so in real terms there has been significant growth in the UK's market value.

Meanwhile, France kept level with a 6% share to retain its fourth place in the global hierarchy.

Note that the US lost 5% of its market share in the same period, so if there is any drift eastwards, it doesn't appear to be from the UK or Europe at the moment.

Staying with the notion of growth, any market that can see global expansion of 7% while much of the world economy experiences almost unprecedented contraction clearly has something to say for itself. Perhaps that is the most important finding in the report presented to delegates at the TEFAF Maastricht fair by its author, the analyst and cultural economist Dr Clare McAndrew.

Or could it be the rate of recovery the market has experienced since the crash of late 2008?

The art market took nearly a decade to recover from the recession of the 1990s, says Dr McAndrew, whereas the contraction in 2009 has been relatively short-lived. This is due, in part, to its increasingly global nature. The €46.1bn global total is not that far short of the all-time high of €48.1bn achieved in 2007.

Chinese Expansion

Looking at the Chinese statistics a little more closely, the report puts much of the growth down to Contemporary and Modern art, and experience tells us that this will largely be domestic product. This has been a volatile sector in the past, and one of the first to deflate when times got tough four years ago, but it has also enjoyed one of the fastest recoveries.

TEFAF also tell us that it is the Chinese art and antiques auction sector that performed most strongly, with a dramatic rise of 177% in 2010 and a further 64% in 2011.

This has been an undoubted phenomenon, but more than one industry specialist has urged caution over reading too much into it. For instance, Bonhams deputy chairman Colin Sheaf, who has been involved in the Chinese market since the late 1970s, is sceptical about the level of sales reported by mainland Chinese auction houses. In his recent ATGinterview (Back Page, issue 2029) he eagerly anticipated the introduction of legislation to tax auction revenues. "If that happened, it would really sharpen up the quality of reporting on auctions," he said.

The TEFAF report acknowledges the considerable difficulty of securing reliable data, noting the "significant problems with non-payment and late payment".

It also quotes the report released by The Chinese Auctioneers' Association, which surveyed 250 auction houses in China and found that around 40% of the 2010 autumn season sales above 10 million RMB had not been paid by April 2011, the six-month deadline by which all winning bids must be settled under Chinese law.

Add in the exploitation of the auction process for paying bribes and other dubious practices and one wonders just what sales data can be relied on.

The TEFAF reports are the Rolls-Royce of art market statistical surveys in their research, preparation and presentation, and Dr McAndrew is the doyenne of such analysis, but as she effectively acknowledges in her approach to the Chinese issue, like most such reports they are as good as the responses from those they survey.

The China question aside, art and antiques at the top end in general are proving to be a stable and increasingly popular investment choice. Certainly the buzz around the stands at TEFAF Maastricht seems to point that way.

The latest TEFAF report provides a wealth of useful information and will make essential reading and reference for anyone who takes the performance of the international art market seriously.

If it's not on your shelf already, you can order a copy at €25 plus p&p via Shop at www.tefaf.com

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Written by

Ivan Macquisten

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