On the move

Czech Art Market in 2014

The year 2014 passed without any great changes or surprises on the Czech market. There was no shortage of record sales, but the total turnover was 10 per cent lower. A still life by Emil Filla was the most expensive painting of the year and Qi Baishi was the best-selling artist – similarly to a year ago. In the end, the most important development may have been the change of address of several auction houses in Prague.


European Arts moved from Dejvice to new premises in Senovážné Square at the beginning of the year, Galerie Kodl moved across the river from Újezd to Národní Avenue in the autumn, and the Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery opened new exhibition premises at Mánes at the turn of the year. More significant than simply a change of location is the fact that this represents, to a large extent, a change in style. It is no longer enough to assemble quality goods for an auction and mail a catalogue to clients. Auction houses can do nothing else but build their brands over the long term, and representative premises for exhibitions – at least if you want to deal in paintings worth millions – are an integral part of this.


It was a very successful year for us, and not only in terms of turnover, but mainly in the fact that we succeeded in moving smoothly into our new premises – after reconstruction – and in changing the location of our auctions,” says European Arts director Albert Trnka, admitting that the concept of the auction house has been changing as well. “The composition of the goods on offer is different than at Meissner-Neumann, which means that our clientele is slightly different. We offer antiques at only two auctions per year and have completely abandoned commission sales. Quality items are fairly rare. When a nice piece appears and the seller does not wish to wait for an auction, we resolve the sale privately,” he explains.


Gallery owner Martin Kodl explains his move to Národní Avenue, to the former seat of the Topič publishing house and just one doorway away from 1. Art Consulting, as being mainly due to the need for larger exhibition premises. “I liked it very much in Vítězná Street. I had some beautiful experiences there and all the expensive paintings we ever sold hung on the wall there. What I like the most about the premises in Národní is that it is a huge space that offers a much higher degree of comfort in terms of the exhibition area as well as security, lighting and facilities for clients,” he says. According to Martin Kodl, the address itself is not as important: “Success in today’s world doesn’t depend on location. Our gallery is built on reference marketing; if we were based in Vysočany, we would have the same level of sales. There would merely be fewer people coming in just to see an exhibition.”


The Adolf Loos Apartment and Gallery began exhibiting at Mánes in January 2015 with an exhibition of paintings by Štyrský and Toyen from the collection of the Galateau family from Paris, which was also an intimate reminder of the first exhibition of Czechoslovak surrealists that took place at the same location 80 years ago and at which the majority of the exhibited works had their premiere. “A sales exhibition of the excellent Corsican abstract painter Jacques Papi will follow. In the summer, as part of the Summer with Mánes project, we are planning short-term sales exhibitions for young local artists. I believe that it could be an opportunity for them to come into the public eye,” gallery owner Vladimír Lekeš says, describing future plans and adding that he counts on alternating between sales and non-sales exhibitions.


In terms of general parameters, last year’s Czech auctions were not significantly different from previous years. Compared to the record year of 2013, turnover dropped by 10 per cent, but other criteria remained essentially unchanged. Over 22,000 works of art and antiques were offered at sixty auctions in Prague, Brno, Ostrava and České Budějovice. Some 10,000 of them found new owners, which represents a sales success rate of 43 per cent. Collectors and investors spent a total of CZK 854 million (unless stated otherwise, all prices in the ART+ Almanac include auctioneer commission), which is historically the third best result in the contemporary history of Czech auctions. The ART+ Index, which monitors other market parameters besides turnover, was also 10 per cent lower year-on-year at the end of the year.


Last year, 136 works of art, mostly paintings, sold for more than one million korunas each. Two years ago, there were 21 more of them. Whereas this highest price segment stagnated to a certain extent – which showed even more in the offer than in sales, with one-quarter fewer works of art offered with a starting price of over one million korunas than in 2013 – the medium price segment strengthened. A record 891 items, 109 more year-on-year, were auctioned for more than CZK 100,000 each. There were several reasons for this – the nature of last year’s offer; a certain saturation of the market in the million-koruna paintings segment where, with some exceptions, the same names come up again and again; the expansion of the collectors’ interest into epochs other than just classic modernism; and the greater ability of buyers to discern and appreciate quality. A substantial price differentiation between an artist’s exceptional items or works from his/her best period and his/her average works applies not only to the most famous names, but also to quite marginal artists.


Million-koruna items represented a mere 1.4 per cent of all sales in terms of their number, but made up half the turnover. However, year-on-year, this is quite a significant decrease, as million-koruna items totalled 58 per cent of the turnover in 2013. In simpler terms, one can say that the entire decrease last year occurred in the highest price segment. Whereas one would have needed CZK 380 million to buy the one hundred most expensive works last year, one would have needed CZK 90 million more two years ago. On the other hand, the average price of sold works excluding the million-koruna items grew from CZK 41,000 to CZK 44,000 last year. Last year’s lower turnover therefore was not caused by lower prices, but instead testifies to the different nature of the works on offer and the behaviour of buyers in the separate years.


The fact that none of the paintings auctioned last year made the historic top 10 of Czech auctions is also characteristic. This is the first time in ten years that something like that has happened. However, we still witnessed interesting artist records with artists whose works have been selling for millions for many years, namely with Václav Špála, Václav Brožík and Alphonse Mucha, even though in his case it was a very large, unusual work. Jaroslav Čermák, Joža Uprka, Vlaho Bukovac, Jan Preisler, Otakar Kubín, František Foltýn, Václav Zykmund and Theodor Pištěk also improved their artist records. František Tkadlík, Josef Mánes, Josef Ullmann, Oldřich Blažíček, Emil Orlik, Jiří Kars and Bohdan Lacina are new members of the millionaires’ club. The sale of a Josef Čapek pastel for CZK 1.2 million was an exceptional success and represents a record for a work of his on paper.


The range of 19th century art, classic modernism and post-war art on offer is hard to imagine without works from abroad being imported into the Czech Republic. Contemporary imports continue to increase the quality and scope of the range of Old Masters and foreign art. “Our goal is to put Czech art within the context of world art. Without this, it can never rise to the level at which it should be. Additionally, if I am collecting 19th century pieces, for instance, and include Boudin or Corot in my collection alongside Czech landscape artists, the whole collection will make a different impression. One cannot make a false move investment-wise, as these works have been verified many times,” Albert Trnka emphasises. His auction house was most active in offering art from abroad last year. Jiří Rybář from 1. Art Consulting, which regularly includes works of German constructivism and op-art at its auctions, is of a similar opinion.


In terms of foreign buyers on the Czech market, the Chinese have been setting the pace for several years. For the second consecutive time, the Chinese classic modern artist Qi Baishi was the best-selling artist at Czech auctions. Last year, at two auctions organised by the Arcimboldo Gallery, Chinese buyers spent over CZK 60 million on his ink drawings and roughly one-eighth of the market’s total turnover last year consisted of Chinese art. Gallery owner Oldřich Hejtmánek admits that with each auction it is harder to get quality goods, as domestic sources – works imported into our territory in the 1950s by participants of various diplomatic and cultural visits to China – are drying up. On the other hand, however, foreign collectors are beginning to offer works for auction. For instance, the unique carved rhinoceros horn which sold for CZK 3.3 million at the gallery’s December auction was of foreign provenance.


Arthouse Hejtmánek devoted its May auction partially to Russian clientele, in the areas of both art and antiques. “Everything Russian sold well – from Korovin, through a tsarist gold medal, to furniture,” auction house owner Tomáš Hejtmánek says. “But I don’t intend to continue to do this. There aren’t so many pieces around and also the current international political situation is unfavourable,” he adds. He told us how he had searched all over Europe for the auctioned items and imports also included some works by the Old Masters. Mária Gálová from Dorotheum also has a wealth of experience with foreign clientele. “Foreign buyers are important for us mainly in the antiques segment. Lately, we’ve been seeing an increase in Italian clientele, which is now equal to the number of our Austrian and German clients,” she explains.


There are currently thirteen auction houses in the Czech market with an annual turnover of over CZK 10 million and seven or eight more whose turnover is in single-figure millions. The fact that this situation is unsustainable has been the subject of discussion for fifteen years, but the situation has not changed. There have been changes in strength and position according to turnover, but there are not fewer auction houses. The highly competitive environment favours sellers, who have a wide choice of auction houses where they can offer their artworks for sale. In practice, this primarily means pressure on commission. The owners of works that are interesting to collectors are now in a position to keep a much bigger portion of the hammer price. Off the record, representatives of auction houses admit that negotiations with buyers are becoming more difficult for them. Only with difficulty can one estimate the profits of individual auction houses based on their level of turnover. In addition, the situation is made less clear by the fact that many auction houses deal in artworks directly, i.e. they are in the position of both auctioneer and seller.


Despite the overall market decrease, the addressed auction-house representatives were generally satisfied with last year’s results. They consider the situation stable and even talk about growth in some segments. According to them, new buyers continue to appear. “Last year, the 19th century sold well,” Martin Kodl says, continuing: “It is positive that it was driven by interest in collecting and not just speculation and that there were more young people taking an interest. I believe that it is a certain reaction to today’s fast-paced world.” Albert Trnka sees a growth potential mainly in post-war art. “Today’s prices will certainly rise several times over,” he says optimistically. Mária Gálová also mentions new buyers: “There is a steady flow of new customers, more often younger ones. It may be the same age category, but now it’s already the next generation.” In the end, this is the most important and most positive news for the Czech auction market.



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