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Auctioneers’ Nightmare: Sotheby’s Combined November/December Sales Down 54% From Previous Year’s

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art

A video recently posted on Sotheby’s website, Contemporary Art Market: A Candid Look from the Inside, features a cast of five—the auction house’s contemporary art team—looking chastened as they candidly discuss the disastrous November sales but try to calm market jitters by assuring sellers that “despite a worsening economic climate, if the right object comes to market, there’s an enormous amount of cash around to buy that object,” in the words of Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art.

The auction houses have yet to issue their end-of-year round-ups of sales results, but since publicly traded Sotheby’s posts its totals online, we can do the math: Sales in 2008 totaled $4.83 billion, only a 9% drop from the $5.33-billion sale total for 2007.

If that doesn’t sound too troubling, it’s because year-to-date 2007 sales didn’t overtake 2008 sales until November. The sales total for November and December was $752.21 million in 2008, a vertiginous 54% drop from the $1.64 BILLION in 2007. November contemporary art sales in New York, the subject of Sotheby’s video, suffered an even steeper decline—62%, from $418.32 million in 2007 to $160.94 million in 2008.

As for the 2009 outlook for contemporary art, the star of the reassuring video, Meyer, offers “two very comforting observations: There is a market, and the market is very stable [!?!] and has a long tradition.”

an ArtsJournal blog