The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF Maastricht), with its reputation of offering quality, authenticity and the very best choice in fine art, signals the beginning of the international art expositions and buying season. This year, all eyes will be fixated on attendance and sales reports of the fair as indicators of collectors’ continued confidence in the art market and desire for quality artworks.
Among those monitoring global developments is Dr. Ulrich Guntram, chairman of leading global art insurer AXA Art, TEFAF’s primary sponsor over the past six years. In an interview with Art and Living, Dr. Guntram shares his perspective on the current art market and AXA Art’s relationships with art fairs over six years.
Art and Living: Over the years, the art world has looked at the results of TEFAF to test the health of the art market. You are now in the seventh year of your partnership with this fair. What has the relationship netted AXA Art?
Ulrich Guntram: This partnership represents a symbiotic relationship. TEFAF, with its recognized, best-in-class reputation for presenting quality art and collectibles, offers a great platform to interact with passionate collectors, dealers and museum professionals. AXA Art brings to the relationship more than 40 years of expertise in insuring art and collectibles as well as allowing for access to our international network of collectors and art world professionals.
A+L: Over the past two years, the art market has experienced some very rocky cycles. Why should people continue to collect?
UG: Collecting is a very personal matter. I imagine for passionate collectors the current climate presents perfect opportunities to look for value in the market and to take a second look at purchasing quality works previously out of their buying reach. I am not impartial here; AXA Art hails from a family of collectors that takes pride in a strong record of supporting the art community. While we look at collecting first and foremost as an act of preserving cultural heritage, we recognize the financial component to collecting. That’s why we are in business—to protect collectors’ aesthetic and financial assets.
A+L: The company’s spokesperson concedes that AXA Art might well be among the biggest supporters of art fairs and that it continues to honor multi-year partnerships and collaborations with well-known international art fairs and cultural institutions despite the economy. What’s the rationale behind supporting art fairs?
UG: Yes, we continue to field questions about maintaining associations with art fairs, especially during a global economic downturn. We have carefully assessed and prepared for these relationships and remain committed to our global partners, despite a challenging economy. Art fairs present occasions to share our passion for protecting and preserving the world’s cultural heritage with collectors and connoisseurs of the art world.
A+L: A commonly heard phrase in the industry recently is “collectors’ flight to quality.” What does this mean to AXA Art?
UG: In answering, I don’t want to suggest that past purchases were not quality works. My interpretation is that the softening in prices—especially in the contemporary segment—presents opportunities to purchase top tier works at more affordable or realistic prices. For me, the “flight to quality” also means that people are becoming smarter and more conscious of what really matters in collecting art.
A+L: The art insurance business must be interesting during these challenging economic times. Would you say the art market confidence has been somewhat wounded? How do you think the art market is fairing?
UG: I believe we are experiencing the side effect of an overheated industry and correction of unhealthy art world trends of the past. Today, collectors are definitely more cautious in their purchasing habits, but this is normal in an economic downturn. We have seen some retreat from the contemporary segment; however, dealers presenting quality works for sale are coming away very happy. Year end 2009 results show auction houses continued to command some impressive sales. These are always good indicators of the underlying health of the market.
A+L: What is AXA Art’s outlook on the art industry?
UG: We recognize these are unprecedented economic times and the financial climate has presented great challenges for some players within the art market. However, I believe this environment also presents possibilities to review and fine-tune art business practices where appropriate. And while I will not make predictions, what I can say is, underlying indicators of the market are strong and AXA Art continues to believe in the long-term viability of the art market.
A+L: Your global team has produced some exceptional presentations during art fairs. What’s behind this strategy?
UG: AXA Art’s ultimate goal is to support collectors and stewards of the art industry in managing and caring for their collections. We also use our presence to profile creative collaborations with the cultural community—to bring attention to their work and advancements in the industry.
A+L: Can you share some recent examples with our readers?
UG: A major component of our strategy is preventing damage and loss. We engage the world’s top experts to explore new ways to protect and conserve works of art. Our global presentations serve to bring awareness to the importance of maintaining a collection in optimum condition, whether in a collector’s home, on display at museums or galleries, in transit or at exhibitions.
A+L: What can the art world expect from AXA Art going forward?
UG: I can share with you that, through the AXA Art Research Grant, we will place stronger focus on the preservation of photography. For this purpose we have just entered into a partnership with Centre de Recherché sur la Conservation des Collections in Paris. We are also investing in ways to define and advance quality standards for the packaging and shipping of art in transit. Last but not least, we are further enlarging our global presence to include the Middle East and Latin America. AXA Art continues to take the necessary stops to remain close to the global art community.
A+L: What’s in store for us at TEFAF 2010?
UG: As we enter the 7th year of partnership with TEFAF, we continue the tradition of using the AXA Art Lounge at the fair to bring attention to the fragility of collectibles, while at the same time presenting practical examples to support collectors in caring for their prized possessions. Continuing with the “Optimal Conditions” theme, our presentation will highlight high value collectibles, such as classic cars, wine, rare books, a Stradivarius. Additionally, our art experts will conduct tours with concentration on TEFAF’s new Works on Paper section.