4 min read July 2022 — Art is slowly but surely becoming an attractive investment alternative, according to Fraser Niven, CEO of Freeman’s Auctions. In an interview with Invest:, Niven shared his insights on the art industry’s latest trends, particularly in the Philadelphia region. “People understand that although it is not providing an income, there is potential for capital growth, if investment is made with the right advice,” he said about investing in art.
What developments marked the past two years for Freeman’s Auctions?
Over the last two years, there has been a significant move of the business to online sales rather than in-person auctions. Prepandemic, we had been investing in making sure that our clients could buy online with ease and confidence but it was in the minority of our overall transactions with in-person and phone bidding being the preferred methods of buying at auction. COVID changed all that and we had to make sure our audience could digitally interact with us, which sped up a trend that had been going on for some time. The in-person numbers also dropped off as our audience became more national and international.
We moved our operation at the tail end of 2019 from our home on Chestnut Street, built back in 1924, to a modern gallery and corporate offices in the Aramark Building on Market Street and further facilities on Girard Avenue, all catering to the modern world of auctioneering.
Our business has also been developing with a focus on the middle market, meaning there is a shift to higher value average lots, bringing us into greater competition with the larger houses. This has provided a real boost to the business and a confidence to expand our efforts and team.
How have the latest developments in Philadelphia’s local economy impacted the art business?
Over the COVID-19 period and subsequent to it, we found that our business was experiencing a more buoyant market. Private clients were engaging with us, due in no small part to them spending time at home, as we presented various sales. We built up our specialist team who were actively meeting clients, initially on zoom but then in-person to discuss market values, trends and strategies for offering clients’ property to the marke
The auction business is sometimes defined as serving a market characterized by 3Ds: Death, Divorce and Downsizing. We are there to support our clients through these events, assisting them catalogue their precious items and then present them to the market often telling the stories that define the items’ value and the families who owned them.
Macroeconomic economic events such as recession clearly have an effect on the business, albeit the above situations continue to occur despite market conditions. We are sensitive to our clients who need to realize value in their property and similarly need to be aware of the effect on buyers’ willingness to acquire property and their value perception during difficult times. To offset local conditions, we present our fine art sales to as wide a market as possible and attract those fortunate to be able to build their collections.
Our confidence in the market remains strong, however, and we are looking to continue to invest in Philadelphia and reach new markets on behalf of our local clients.
As an auction house, how are you differentiating your operations from an art gallery?
We gather consignments, consider values in the secondary market, and develop various marketing and outreach initiatives to set up the sale. Our specialists will discuss the auction lots and collections with buyers and provide their experience to back their view of value and importance of the items. It is then up to the market to decide the value during an often lively competitive sale, which provides the excitement and energy of an auction.
We are a full-service auction house with a wide range of specialists experienced in fine art, as well as jewelry, books and manuscripts and the various decorative arts. We appreciate certain markets will change depending on tastes and market conditions but continue to be enthusiastic about our clients’ art collections and how we present them.
A gallery will tend to have a narrower specialization, work with artists themselves, and present a show having determined the price needed by both parties. The price is generally what you see on the ticket and is available at the time of the show.
At present, contemporary art is very much at the forefront of everyone’s attention. Auction houses are now putting forward fresh new artists who do not necessarily have an established secondary market, which was once the main differentiator between us and the art galleries.
How is the economic environment affecting people who invest in art?
Art is increasingly recognized as an investment class. Clearly it is not an income generating asset but there is potential for capital growth if the artwork is considered carefully. To an extent, that is why several houses are presenting some newer artists. They think that they are getting in on the ground floor by offering these pieces and, if held for a few years, they will go up in value. However, like other investment classes art values can go down as well as up, so it is not a guarantee.
When the economic conditions are difficult there will be investors taking advantage of lower values to enhance their collections and wait for an upturn and increased values. Anyone considering art other than something to be appreciated and enjoyed needs to take highly specialized advice into consideration. Personally, I think it is unfortunate that, in certain circumstances, some art is bought and placed in a warehouse.
What advice would you give to someone looking to invest in art?
I personally do not advise on art investments, so I would reiterate the need to work with specialists in the field. However, I have seen real movements in the market illustrated by our recent sales and world records achieved for certain artists. Sylvia Shaw Judson’s Bird Girl, achieved an impressive $390k, Norman Rockwell’s Piney Rest Motel (Cozy Rest Motel) $479k and a collection of Albert York’s paintings $685k highlighting our strength in American Art and Pennsylvanian Impressionists. Our Books and Manuscripts department created a real stir with the sale of a stone Declaration of Independence for $4.42m, found in an attic by our international partners Lyon and Turnbull. In April our Asian sale included a pair of Chinese huanghuali armchairs that sold for c$1m, with many more examples of exciting results.
The contemporary art market is very hot right now and we have hired a new head of department specifically to assist our clients in this area adding to our Fine Art team.
It really is difficult to predict or find the next trend in such an exciting market. Our job is to tell the interesting stories about the artwork entrusted to us to promote, and to let the market determine its value. To that end, we are also building our online experience to create more interest, excitement and participation in the auction process. This is providing all participants, even those who are merely watching, an entertaining spectacle of a Freeman’s auction.
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