Art Prices Boom and The Armory Show Comes to Town

by Alex R. Travers

The most obvious reason right now to visit The Armory Show, New York’s premier art fair scheduled to begin March 7, is to see just how high art prices are going. Sure, there is great art—there will always be great art—but this year the inexorable force behind upward prices will surely be the thing to look out for.

It’s mind-blowing. Just last November, Christie’s sold $412 million of art in one evening. It was the most valuable auction ever in the Post-War and Contemporary category. Last December, over 50,000 guests attended Art Basel Miami Beach and sales at the 11-year-old fair skyrocketed. But it’s not just art prices that are rising. Today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average pierced through its 2007 record high of 14,198.10. Gold is at $1,575 an ounce. Asset prices are quickly escalating, but are they really worth what they are marked at today?

Probably not. So what’s causing these upward prices, especially in the art market? Is it newly rich foreign buyers vying for trophy art? Many new collectors purchase pieces that are recognizable to others. Their friends come over and swoon with envy-spiked delight: “Is that a…?” Branding certainly runs rampant in the art world. In fact, works often reach record heights when two bidders are left competing for one piece at auction. These lengthy lot times are a boon for the artist’s market; they’re sure to be covered by the media. But the art market is a complicated beast, and it’s not just competitive buyers and media coverage jacking up the prices at auction.

What’s unique about this illiquid market is its lack of transparency. When an Andy Warhol “Statue of Liberty” sells for almost $44 million in November, what’s it worth right now? There’s no ticker-tape consistently tracking its value. And in today’s market there are many people buying art as an investment. Auction houses and galleries tend to facilitate these sales. Still, there are other places where collectors buy art with even less transparency and more hype than the auction blocks and art galleries.

Enter the art fair. As far as fairs go, The Armory Show is one of the largest and most respected. The show takes place at Piers 92 and 94 at 55th Street and 12th Avenue on Manhattan’s west side. At Pier 94 you’ll find works from the 21st century. Walk down to Pier 92 and you’ll see works from the 20th century. An appealing touch about the show is its diversity and number of exhibitors. With galleries showcasing works from around the world, it’s fantastic to see the depth of the pieces on display. There usually aren’t solo exhibits, so you’ll find a range of artists in each gallery’s space. Since everything is for sale don’t be afraid to ask for prices. In fact, I encourage it.

This year, when I noticed that The Armory Show was celebrating its centennial, I realized that could only mean one thing: more glitz and glam. My conflicted feelings about art fairs keep nagging at me. On one hand, they expose audiences to great works of art. Yet, the marketplace often overpowers the force of the art itself. There’s really only one thing to do: explore and get lost in the madness of it all.