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Art market weathers financial storm

"Tea set" by Urs Fischer - art that has weathered the market storm (www.contemporaryfinearts.de).

Despite a tough year for the stock exchange, Switzerland's art market has emerged relatively unscathed with record sales in both galleries and auction houses.

Influenced by global economic and geopolitical insecurity, financiers have been looking to invest in the more stable art market.

The worldwide art market is still relatively small compared to its financial counterpart, with an estimated value of €26 billion (SFr37.8 billion), according to the European Fine Art Foundation.

Switzerland's art market, with sales of €625 million, ranks fifth in the world behind the United States (€12.5 billion, Britain (€6.8 billion), France (€2 billion) and Germany (€800 million).

Auctioneers in Zurich were stunned in November after a painting by one of Switzerland's greatest painters, Ferdinand Hodler, broke records when it was sold for SFr3 million ($2 million).

The work, entitled "View of Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the Distance", fetched SFr1 million above its estimated price.

Record sale

Works by Robert Zünd, Félix Valloton and Adolf Wölfli all fetched prices well above their estimates at the sale held by Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg.

"The art world is not totally independent from the economic sector, but when the situation is bad, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will have negative effects on the art market," Peter Vestch, spokesman for Art Basel, told swissinfo.

Vestch himself has just returned from a visit to Miami in the United States where Art Basel has been staging its first ever exhibition abroad.

"Most of the gallery owners said that they were satisfied with the sales in Miami. But we'll only know for sure during the next Art Basel exhibition, from the number of galleries who want to take part," he added.

Objects of desire

Ivan Wirth, one of the most important dealers of modern and contemporary art in Switzerland, says that the fall of the financial markets has led to increased investment in the art world.

According to Wirth, 2002 has been the best year for his gallery, Hauser and Wirth, since it opened ten years ago.

"I'm not saying that people are buying art works instead of shares. It's true that many have left the stock exchange and therefore liquidity has increased, but art is a more spiritual dividend than a financial one. Buyers are already happy if what they buy doesn't lose its value," Wirth told swissinfo.

The gallery owner says that speculation plays only a minor role in art acquisition. Although the notion of a secure investment does exist, buying art is chiefly about the pleasure of collecting.

Market crash

"Let's not forget that that the art market is slowly re-establishing itself following the crash in the early nineties, after the excesses of the eighties," he said.

Wirth also believes that since then there has been a greater emphasis on quality, and prices have only risen for exceptional works.

On the international scene, as has been confirmed at Art Basel in Miami, new collectors are coming from the United States. But more and more Asians, Japanese and Koreans are also buying.

According to Wirth, the fact that there are few Impressionist works of value on the market has boosted interest in contemporary art dating from the 1960s onwards.

"For the first time, the sales at the large auction houses, like Christies, have registered higher prices for contemporary artists than for Impressionists," added Wirth.

Record prices

Although most art sales take place in galleries, there have also been a considerable number in auction houses, which serve as a barometer for the general health of the art market.

Despite fears of a slump in the art market following September 11, 2001, there have been record sales in 2002 - as demonstrated by Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg's Zurich sale.

"We are very satisfied," said Irene Stoll, at the Zurich branch of the auction house. "The Swiss market is very solid and there are many quality pieces on offer which are not hard to sell, even at a higher price."

According to Stoll, this is a tendency that will not only be confirmed but may also be reinforced in the future.

Other Swiss artists selling well abroad include Thomas Hirschorn, Pippilotti Rist, Fischli/Weiss, Roman Signer, Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer.

"Switzerland and especially her young artists are very much appreciated abroad, in the museum circuit and by art merchants. You can't say the same for many other aspects of our society," said Wirth.

swissinfo, Rafaella Rossello (translated by Isobel Johnson)

Key facts

The Swiss art market is worth an estimated €26 billion.
"View of Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the Distance" by Ferdinand Hodler sold for SFr3 million ($2 million) in November - SFr1 million above its estimate.
Other Swiss artists such as Thomas Hirschorn and Pippilotti Rist are also selling well abroad.

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