Art is an expensive investment at the best of times, and this is not the best of times: so are people still buying art? It would appear not. In the first quarter of 2009, art prices have dropped by 35% and big names (both artists and auction houses) have been seriously affected. Profits at Sotheby’s and Christies have dropped dramatically since the Autumn of 2008 and earlier this year, Sotheby’s Chief Executive William F. Ruprecht agreed to a reduction in his salary of 14% as profits plummeted even further.

Many famous artists whose work previously sold for eye-watering prices have experienced a sudden downturn in interest. In February a Banksy piece entitled ‘Trolley’ was up for sale in a raffle for just 1p – which is a startling price for something so highly collectable. Some Banksy works have even failed to sell at all, and this pattern is being repeated with contemporary artists such as Blek le Rat and Anthony Micallef.

If these famous artists cannot sell their work what hope is there for lesser known artists and smaller galleries? The analysis is mixed; many are optimistic about the future of the market because art is primarily a long-term investment. Because of this, the downturn could give people a chance to snap up a bargain, knowing that they stand to make money in the long run.

However, the rising cost of materials will have an effect, particularly on upcoming and unconventional artists. As galleries have their profits squeezed they are likely to become much more averse to risk taking, and stick to showing conventional work which is more certain to sell.

Art isn’t necessarily all about selling a product. The recession could actually have a positive effect on the art market, as collectors stop buying purely for the sake of owning an investment piece and start to actually observe the art and enjoy it and appreciate it more for pleasure than status. Perhaps the art world can take a step back from the frantic selling environment and actually appreciate art for what it was originally created to do: to stimulate and be appreciated by the viewer for its own merit.

Katie Balcombe

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