2020 Oceanic Art Market Report & Analysis By Leading Specialist in Field
2020 Oceanic Art Market Report
By Michael Hamson
There are two critical factors that shaped the Oceanic art market in 2019 and that continue to do so today. First, the market is exceptionally broad with a large number of objects on offer by both auction houses and dealers. Secondly, the buyers and collectors of Oceanic art are increasingly knowledgeable and selective, resulting in a market that is lean and somewhat ruthless with an emphasis almost entirely on the very high end. That being said, the market is still undervalued. With the bulk of the informed and established buyers focusing on the top, superb objects can often readily be acquired.
What Constitutes the Market for Oceanic Art
While auctions move a lot of material from the very top end right down to the bottom, in my estimation they account for a bit less than half the overall turnover in Oceanic art. There is no way of knowing how much business the galleries and private dealers do each year, but I suspect it is somewhat in line with the broader art market. The most recent Art Basel Global Art Market Report for 2018 divides up the entire field of fine and decorative art and antiques similarly—47% for the auctions and 53% for the dealers. In 2019 there were 1,507 Oceanic art lots at auction that sold for 11,832,489 euros (US$13,094,423). And if this constitutes just 47%, then the overall market for Oceanic art in 2019 is more than 25,000,000 euros.
In my estimation, the sheer number of sales and lots offered is a sign of strength or at least perceived strength of Oceanic material. As most of you know, Oceanic art has steadily gained in popularity over the past few decades. For example, if we look back through the last 30 years, there has been a drastic increase in objects offered—in 1989 there were 180 lots of Oceanic art for sale at auction; in 1999 it grew to 301 lots; by 2009 there were 587; in 2014 it had grown to 1,056; and last year, 2019, there were 1,507 lots of Oceanic art at auction.
One oft-quoted statistic is the sold versus passed lot percentage. In 2019 there were 963 lots sold and 544 lots passed—thus, 64% of lots sold. I personally do not take this particular statistic too seriously. If one looks closely at all 1,507 lots from 2019, most will recognize that there were many objects that should never have been part of the sale in the first place—from being either of dubious authenticity or uninspiring quality. In addition, many otherwise worthy objects failed to sell because they were blatantly over-estimated—which can sometimes be tracked back to unrealistic expectations of the consignor. So the fact that these low-quality or overpriced lots did not sell, to me, is actually a good sign. It shows the market is knowledgeable and increasingly merciless.
Trends in the Market
There is an unquestionable aging of the client base, with more people dropping out of the market than are entering it. It is that elusive next generation of collectors that auction houses and dealers are scratching their heads trying to locate. Without the volume of new interest, the market seems to be chugging along driven primarily by the passion of existing serious collectors.
Another trend I think worth noting is how the sheer number of objects for sale by both auctions and dealers has affected the market. It is hard to quantify the effect of the internet on the overall market, with its ability to display and offer art to potential buyers. All of the auction houses have their lots visible online and I think virtually all of the active dealers have at least some of their inventory featured on their websites. Just over 20 years ago, none of this was online.
What does this mean for the market for Oceanic art? First, it obviously means collectors have an enormous choice at their disposal. The broad market, combined with numerous online research resources, means the choices collectors make are increasingly informed. As such, there seems to be an expedited connoisseurship taking place. While before it took years of gallery and museum visits and stacks of books perused to learn style, age and quality, this can now occur exponentially quicker.
We can see this translating directly in today’s market. Good, solid but average objects are greeted with a yawn. It takes a remarkable piece to jolt today’s collector into bidding or reaching for his checkbook. Now, serious collectors exercise their increased knowledge and wait for something special. This in part accounts for the drop in excitement and subsequent value of run-of-the-mill items and the continued strength in the very top end of the market. The oversaturation of the art market—not just the Oceanic art sector—by the unbelievable access provided by the internet has polarized the field like no other time in history.
The hunger for the exceptional is almost matched by the desire for the fresh and new to the market. As pieces flow from auction to dealer to art fair to collector and around again, sometimes this whole life history takes place visually on the internet—online auction catalogs, dealer websites, Instagram posts of art fairs or a proud client’s new acquisition. Such exposure is critical in creating initial interest but also complicit in dampening future curiosity for the object. This can explain the fervent search for fresh pieces from old collections able to jar the complacent, blurry-eyed collector into action. Bonhams’ New York sale in November, which featured a number of pieces from the Richard Kelton Collection long off the market, experienced this surge in interest with only two out of 35 Kelton lots going unsold.
Opportunities in the Oceanic Art Market
The Oceanic art market is broad and varied, with substantial choice available to a relatively modest number of serious collectors. As established collectors become increasingly selective, excellent opportunities open up at every level of the market. The foundation of the field consists of more common objects of correct authenticity, good quality and respectable aesthetic appeal that frequently sell well below $10,000. This segment accounts for over 80% of the market and, in my opinion, has been somewhat overlooked these past five years. Collectors wanting to build collections with good, solid examples can do so today easily and affordably.
The sweet spot in today’s Oceanic art market seems to be those objects often selling between $10,000 and $60,000. These are the pieces that are solid A-quality that appeal to even the most exclusive collector. Often top-of-the-category New Guinea masks and shields, excellent Polynesian clubs and the majority of an auction’s best pieces fall into this range. At this level, first-rate objects are available at prices most serious collectors can at least occasionally pay. That being said, this strong segment of the market is still undervalued, in my opinion. Even with the bulk of the knowledgeable and established buyers focusing in this range, superb objects can often readily be acquired.
One would think that with all the emphasis on the top end this would hardly be the place where objects go underappreciated. Yet for those with the funds there is one other segment of the market I believe is filled with potential. For example, while an A-quality Sepik River figure can go for between $25,000 and $60,000, an A+ might cost more than $200,000. At first glance that would seem a steep leap in cost for a seemingly small bump in quality. Yet, to be able to acquire one of the best examples known of an iconic and important cultural object, often better than found in most museums, for $200,000 or $300,000 seems inexpensive. It is as if there is a false ceiling or lack of imagination that limits the majority of the most exceptional Oceanic objects to this price range. In part it is pure economics—within the modest group of knowledgeable collectors out there, very few feel comfortable spending more than $200,000 on a single piece. So, with such a small pool of potential buyers, masterpieces of Oceanic art can frequently be a bargain.
The large supply of good-quality objects within a soft market with a relatively small buyer pool means there are numerous opportunities out there. Two that I have noticed recently are Massim lime spatulas and Papuan Gulf gope boards. Most of us realize the market for Papuan Gulf gope boards had been driven in large part by a single collector this past 15 years. One person was able to energize and drive up the entire market for a significant category of Oceanic art. The spirit boards from the Papuan Gulf are classic and iconic objects that are featured in every book on Oceanic and New Guinea art. Up until the early 2000s, these were rarely at the top of a collector’s wish list. The vast majority sold in the $2,000–$6,000 range no matter how good, great or old they were. There was just not the interest or expertise in gope boards to push them above this modest and limited price range—until a certain New York collector decided to focus almost exclusively on them.
Over the next 15 years his interest grew and defined the market for gope boards. Realizing that there was an eager buyer lit a fire under the dealers to find gope boards. Through trial and error by everyone involved, the market grew more and more selective. A once undefined category blossomed into a thriving genre where common, late and average boards fell by the wayside and the oldest and most expressive rose to the top.
That single driving-force collector has since left the market for gope boards and, in fact, has started selling his collection. Now, excellent A-quality gope boards that once would have readily sold for $40,000 to $60,000 fetch between $10,000–$25,000. The quality of the art has not changed one bit. As these and other great ones hit the market, be prepared to take advantage of the situation.
The situation with Massim lime spatulas is somewhat similar. When another prominent New York collector was building his world-class collection of New Guinea art, he went aggressively after the best spatulas. As his collection was later dispersed, many of these fabulous Massim spatulas hit the market and achieved solid results. Yet, after a while, top-quality spatulas began to draw less attention. The result has been a general drop in interest in these such that I have seen some excellent examples go for a fraction of what they should. There was one recently sold at a Woolley and Wallis auction for less than $200 when just a few years ago this would have achieved over $3,000. There are still plenty of good but average spatulas where $200 might be an appropriate price, but the excellent ones are slipping through the cracks. So keep an eye out for opportunities with Massim lime spatulas.
As 2020 unfolds look for these trends to continue. The laser-beam focus on the top end leaves much of the market overlooked. Quality can be found at all levels and it will be frequently undervalued.
Analyzing the market will be a continuing project of mine, and next month I will attempt a few case studies of individual objects to chart how they have performed over the decades as they popped in and out of the market. Can Oceanic art be considered a legitimate investment? Stay tuned …
February 12, 2020