Spain’s art market; the sick man of Europe takes a turn for the worse

New report highlights the recent slide in a traditionally anemic sector, despite international success of Spanish artists

‘The Absinthe Drinker’ by Pablo Picasso, on sale at Christie's in London.
‘The Absinthe Drinker’ by Pablo Picasso, on sale at Christie's in London.PAUL HACKETT (REUTERS)

With VAT running out of control, a wave of public spending cuts choking institutional acquisitions, and an attempt at creating a network of collectors that never quite gelled, the Spanish art market is facing its worst moment with its defenses down and no hint of improvement on the horizon. Added to overall prices and sales, which are significantly below the average of other countries, this makes Spain one of the smallest art markets in all of Europe.

This appraisal was released this week courtesy of the research and consulting firm Arts Economics, at the request of Fundación Arte y Mecenazgo, an art foundation whose stated mission is to encourage art collecting and sponsorship in Spain. The foundation is supported by La Caixa, and its board of trustees includes prominent entrepreneurs and art collectors such as Alicia and Esther Koplowitz, and the Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza, Carmen Cervera.

Clare McAndrew, an economist specializing in the art market and founder of Arts Economics, presented The Spanish Art Market in 2012 together with Leopoldo Rodés, chairman of the foundation. McAndrew told the press that her research included talking to art dealers, auctioneers, collectors and other agents in a sector that employs around 11,000 people and brought in 300 million euros in 2011 through auction and dealer sales. Of that, 128 million euros went to the state in taxes.

"It is especially revealing to compare the situation of our country against the global market so as to be aware of the need to take measures to promote the conservation and generation of our artistic heritage," said Rodés in the foreword to the report.

The figures pale when they are compared with those of other countries. If the main international art centers such as Paris or London sell fewer works at higher prices, things are exactly the other way around in Spain, which is Europe's sixth-largest European art market by value after Britain (64 percent of the global pie), France (17 percent), Germany (five percent), Italy (3.5 percent) and Austria (2.1 percent). In fact the best-selling Spanish artists - with a tireless Picasso topping the list and Miquel Barceló as the sole living artist in a "top 10" of deceased creators - typically do better abroad than at home, where the art trade ran a deficit in 2011: imports reached 88 million euros while exports were only 66 million. Average are prices in Spain are 39 percent of the EU average.

Despite so much in the way of bad news, in the last decade the Spanish art market enjoyed a growth rate of 87 percent, far above that of the economy as a whole. But this growth has stopped in recent times. Between 2007 and 2011 the sector fell 33 percent. Part of this is due to a lack of dynamism in the sector, the study says.

The analysis also talked about a stunted collector fabric that is much less robust than in the United States or Britain. Clare McAndrew estimates that there are 400,000 people in Spain who could be considered millionaires, yet unlike other countries, there are no known major collections in tune with such levels of wealth.

"Either collecting levels are very low or they are doing their collecting in other countries," said McAndrew, adding that there are historical and geopolitical factors to explain this, including isolation during the Franco years, which coincided with the expansion of the world art market. The study also noted that most tax incentives in Spain in relation to art apply only to heritage art, and pointed at "insufficient government support and stimulus."

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