Art rides the turbulent winds of 2016, but returns remain impressive for those that stay the course

Price movements in the global art market have been volatile in 2016, though certain sub-sectors continue to settle the nerves of investors. At the very top of the mega priced is a clutch of artworks whose value-meter clicks ever upwards, mostly justifying its pick as an investment of super-merit.

According to Knight Frank’s 2017 Wealth Report art declined 14% to the fourth quarter of 2016, yet is still up 139% over 10 years. Many genres fared less well than paintings, which recorded higher than expected prices towards the end of the year. November’s New York sales, which traditionally mark the end of the auction year, attracted strong bidding, with the top price of the year achieved by Christie’s when it sold one of Claude Monet’s iconic Grainstack paintings for US$81m – way above its $45m estimate.

The results reflect how the market for alternative investments is much like other markets – they go through peaks and troughs, sometimes offering steady, or spectacular returns, and sometimes falling out of favour.

Examples of how the prevailing trend has been bucked came via stellar prices set by superstars Picasso and Modigliani. Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955) sold for $179m at Christie’s New York to break the auction record for any painting. Amedeo Modigliani’s (1884-1920), Nu couché sold for $170.4m also at Christie’s New York. When Will You Marry?, a painting by Paul Gauguin of two Tahitian girls, became the most expensive work of art ever sold when it was bought by a museum in Qatar for $300m.

Notably, interest for art as an investment in Africa continues to take root, with The Standard Bank Gallery’s Henri Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning exhibition reflecting the growing interest in quality alternative investments. The exhibition closed on a successful note, having attracted more than 30,000 visitors eager to marvel at the iconic French artist’s versatility and range. The robust visitor numbers for this exhibition compare favourably with previous exhibitions of 20th-century modernists at the gallery and is exceeded only by 2006’s Pablo Picasso showcase at the Standard Bank Gallery, which drew 56,000 visitors.

“Increasingly, African investors in passion investments such as art are learning that spending money on rare items may be driven by enjoyment and appreciation for beauty – but it is also an investment that can leave conventional investments trailing far behind,” says Philip Faure, global head of wealth planning at Standard Bank Wealth and Investment.

“These investors have the means to acquire the items that fire their imaginations, but at the back of their minds is their understanding of markets – they know that what may not be ‘flavour of the year’ this time round, could be the great find of the year to come”.

Other big sellers last year included Girls on the Bridge by Edvard Munch, which was sold by Sotheby’s for $54m – a big jump from the $31m it fetched when sold in 2008 – and Untitled XXV by the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning, sold by Christie’s for $66m, a record for the artist.

Showing that the old masters still have life in them, Peter Paul Rubens’ Lot and his Daughters was sold by Christie’s London for £45m ($58.4m), the second-most expensive work to sell by the artist after his Massacre of the Innocents, which made almost £50m ($64.9m) in 2002. And Untitled by the modern US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat set a record for the artist when it fetched $57m with Christie’s New York in May.

According to the Knight Frank report a marked variation in performance is noticeable across different genres. European Impressionist painters, such as Matisse and Cézanne, saw the largest annual drop in the value of works sold at auction, while 19th-century artists like Constable and Turner rose by 19%. Modern and contemporary works, which have previously been the stellar performers in the art index, recorded drops of 8% and 2% respectively.

It seems the eternal question, “But is it art” will never satisfactorily be answered. Art lore has it that feared and venerated critic of the 1940s to the 1980s, Clement Greenberg, entered a state of rapture when he beheld a painting or sculpture that truly presented itself to him as “art”. Everyone sees something different when they look at the same work and it is that happenstance that confounds attempts to set the template by which art can be coveted and valued. Such self-appointed cognoscenti as Greenberg claimed to have the key; but for most us denied such facility we must hope and pray that what we like appeals to many more art lovers as well.

“Only the market really knows,” concludes Faure.