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Art buyers becoming more 'careful': Sotheby's CEO

Amid growing concerns about a bubble in the art market, Sotheby's CEO Tad Smith said buyers are becoming more "discerning" and "careful" about what they buy. But they are still bidding big bucks for the best pieces.

"All of our clients are stepping up to buy things they really want that are high quality items that are fresh," Smith told CNBC on Tuesday. "They are being more careful on where they spend and focusing on what they really want rather than the things they might have wanted when they felt a little more flush."

The big fall auction season, which starts next week, comes at a critical moment in the global market. While prices have been soaring for years for major works, weakness in China and volatile financial markets around the world could test buyer demand for multimillion-dollar art.

While some experts say the rise in global uncertainty could drive even more money into art as a safe haven for wealth, others say prices have become too high for even the richest of collectors, and may be set for a correction — or, at least, a slowdown.

A detail from Danseuses en blanc by Edgar Degas, part of the A. Alfred Taubman collection.
Source: Sotheby's
A detail from Danseuses en blanc by Edgar Degas, part of the A. Alfred Taubman collection.

But Smith said that while sales in Hong Kong have slowed, demand from wealthy Chinese buyers hasn't collapsed. What's more, European and American buyers still have a healthy appetite.

"When you look at Hong Kong, our sales of fine art slipped a little bit but [the interest] you saw ... was concentrated on fewer lots," Smith said, referring to a sale in early October.

"The percentage of lots that didn't sell went up but the sales overall remained relatively unaffected because people were stepping up to buy the things they really wanted. You saw similar things in London and with our Italian and contemporary evening sale."

"If you have a doomsday view of China, [it] may come to pass but we haven't seen any evidence of it yet," Smith added.

Sotheby's is making an especially big bet on the fall season with its sale of the A. Alfred Taubman collection. Sotheby's has guaranteed the sale, which includes around 500 works spread across multiple auctions, for around $500 million.

Taubman, the former owner and chairman of Sotheby's, was convicted in 2001 and then sent to prison for his role in a price-rigging scandal involving Christie's and Sotheby's. He died in April at age 91, and his family is selling the collection to fund his charitable foundation and pay estate taxes.

Smith said the variety and sheer number of works in the collection limits the risk of the guarantee. He added that winning the Taubman collection, after a fierce contest with Christie's, was important to the Sotheby's brand and to shareholders.

"There were competitors who were really keen to get it, there's no doubt about it," he said.

During his seven months as CEO, Smith has embarked on a dramatic makeover of Sotheby's — expanding its online presence, developing auctions for lower-priced works, opening offices in new wealth centers around the world and expanding into categories beyond art, such as jewelry and wine.

The company's share price is down roughly 20 percent since he was named CEO, but Smith said he's managing for the long term.

"My view on Sotheby's is that we have an attractive, long-term global market with lots and lots of growth opportunities. But it is cyclical," he said. "What you have seen in the recent couple of months is that stocks that are cyclical or sensitive to the economy have been re-rated."

Asked about his proudest achievement so far at Sotheby's, Smith joked, "My proudest moment in the past week is that my wife and I agreed on two things to buy at the Taubman sale."

"I can't tell you what they are because I'm afraid going to be outbid."