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Wanted: Death, divorce or bankruptcy needed to jumpstart this market

The stock of assets for sale on agents' books is plumbing desperate depths in a sector popular with luxury investors. And this time it's not London property.

The high-end art market has seen sales plummet this year as rising demand from Asia has been unable to compensate for a precipitous drop-off in activity in the West.

A large number of auction house clients are often multimillionaires or billionaires and have enough financial firepower to pick and choose when they bring pieces to market.

Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Given current global economic weakness and turbulence seen in financial markets in recent periods, "Some of the big owners of art are not confident enough to put their major works on the block," says Philip Hoffman, Founder and Chief Executive of The Fine Art Group, an art advisory and investment house.

According to Hoffman, the market would benefit from an unfortunate event such a death, divorce or bankruptcy that would bring a forced sale. And it seems an impending tragedy for some could bring some relief to art intermediaries, with Hoffman hinting, "November could be an interesting turning point where some interesting estates are going to come on the block."

Hoffman, a long-term industry veteran and former Deputy CEO of Christie's Europe, claims buyers are raring to go as soon as attractive assets land on the auctioneers' blocks: "There is a huge amount of cash sitting in deposit accounts and there is a lot of interest in finding the right work of art."

Fresh from a trip to China, Hoffman emphasised the buoyant interest from Chinese investors in the Western art market. The company has recently moved into a new line of business to satisfy a niche demand. According to Hoffman, Chinese investors want credit to be arranged and to borrow money against art.

"Leverage into the art market will bring a whole new game into the art market and I think we'll see a big growth over the next five years."


And it's not just the Chinese who are buying. The post-Brexit hit taken by the British pound has also driven a recent surge of interest from Middle Eastern and American buyers. Hoffman says there's evidence of a positive effect for "anything priced in sterling and any international art, for example, impressionism or international contemporary."

But for those of us whose disposable income falls a few zeroes short of the average high-end art market investor, is there any way to step on to the ladder?

Hoffman suggests those less financially footloose and fancy-free should look at British artists, such as Bridget Riley or Frank Auerbach. He claims a small piece of Riley's can be acquired for around $50,000, a level which the he advises investors not to dip below as selecting a winner can be compared to finding "a needle in a haystack."

And there's a lesson to be learned from Hoffman's dealing: After buying a piece for $40,000 in 2008 and reselling it for $100,000 two years' later, he was pleased with his gain – until he saw the same piece go at auction in 2012 for a cool $2 million.

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