Collectors in the Covid-19 era

On 12 June 2020, by Pierre Naquin et Hugues Cayrade

Even if all the market players were to go digital to cope with the crisis created by Covid-19, the recovery of business remains highly uncertain, and in the end depends on the mood of collectors. So, what is their state of mind these days?

Charles Riva in front of Comet (1970), Lee Krasner.
© HV Photography. Courtesy Collection Charles Riva

The crisis brought about by the epidemic has hit the art market hard, particularly with the cancellation of numerous fairs. While many players are seeking to reinvent themselves, it is undeniable that collectors still represent the main outlet for artworks, without which there would be no market at all. How has their buying been affected by Covid-19?
Florence and Daniel Guerlain expand their collection through the foundation they created in 1996. Since 2004, their foundation is no longer regularly open to the public, but since 2006, it has awarded a prize during the Salon du Dessin in Paris. "Although it's problematic for us to prepare for the prize in 2021 because of constraints linked with the pandemic, which means limited travel abroad, the crisis has not really affected our collection," says the couple. "Galleries have been sending us pictures of works and artists' biographies online, and we have made several purchases." While they acclaim the initiatives taken by Emmanuel Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac to support their colleagues, Florence and Daniel Guerlain make no secret of their concern about the future of the art world. "As we have no idea what will happen to us during the next few months or years, we'll have to live without any preconceptions."

Between pragmatism and philosophy
Philippe Tirault, a collector based in the land of the Morning Calm, where the situation was quickly contained, confesses to having been active even during the period when Korea was affected: "I was able to go and see the works that were offered in the online sales. In particular, I acquired a large Chung Kyung Yoon, dating from 2002, as well as a drawing by Bernar Venet. Prices fell considerably; demand was low, and the offer was plentiful. It was a good time to buy," he says pragmatically. Converted to the advantages of digital technology in selling art, he is still cautious when it comes to the purchase itself: "I always need to have the work in front of me. But I think that discovering pieces online will stay with us; that's a positive result of the crisis. It provides access to many more artists and works, and makes art available to a wider audience. There's no longer a problem with physical location: I can look at an exhibition in Paris online, and ten minutes later I'm at a gallery in Berlin…" But he says that he has "not really succeeded in spotting any new artists during this period," and remains "very attached to the actual substance."
Established in New York, although part of his collection is on show in Brussels, Charles Riva has also demonstrated a certain pragmatism. "My collection is very important to me, so I am adapting to the current situation," he says. "We have already created new layouts for the collection spaces so that we can receive visitors in line with health requirements." As regards acquisitions (he recently bought a painting by Cheyney Thompson at Sotheby’s), the development of the digital side does not worry him, but, as he emphasizes, "in a certain price range, below €200,000 euros." He continues, "The Viewing Rooms set up help us to stay up to date with the market and trends without actually traveling to a fair or an auction. These virtual initiatives are above all changing practices in terms of access to information." For him, "this is a time to wait, at least until October. That'll make it possible to access more historical works at a better price. The market seems stable because firstly, auction rooms have reduced the number of lots on offer, and secondly, galleries are offering a smaller selection of artists." He ends on a positive note: "This isn't the first time the art market has experienced a crisis. It is still a good long-term investment if you buy avant-garde artists."
A forerunner in the digital collection of art, mostly Chinese, and in new methods for showing works using virtual reality, Sylvain Lévy draws highly philosophical lessons from the coronavirus situation. "I've changed, personally. I see there's a large part of the art world that doesn't interest me so much. This milieu was completely engulfed by the market over the last decade, and artists who tried to convey different messages had become totally inaudible. I hope that mentalities will change and that they will now find a voice." "All the big players in the art market, who possess the knowledge or experience, are going to have to face searching questions. The question of institutions' resilience (particularly financial) will be crucial. It will probably be even tougher for private collections. There will always be a traditional view of art, but the vision of what comes next will be able to develop more quickly," he thinks. Lévy, who manages the DSL Collection with his wife Dominique and their daughter Karen, intends "only to focus on things that give meaning to life. I see art and collecting not as an end in itself but as a platform for exchanging ideas. We'll continue to buy, but only major pieces that go in the direction we want. Even if digital art remains marginal in terms of the market, it will continue to be one of the main driving forces of contemporary creation – as was already the case with biennials. Picasso is no longer worth investing in today."

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