Luxury is back on the up

Isaac Mostovicz writes that the wealthy are spending again...

There have been a flood of reports lately on the increase of spending and of the return of the rich. To reiterate what Daniel Gross of Slate said, “The truly rich never went away…” “The corridors of wealth and finance are alive with new optimism” says New York Times columnist Rob Cox. Stock prices doubled in the past year for Whole Foods; high-end real estate is also recovering: the number of homes sold over $2 million in 2010 was higher in its first quarter when compared with figures in 2005.  And Tiffany’s global sales went up 22 percent, with Saks up 6.1 percent and Nordstrom up 12 percent. Jason Notte from Mainstream noted some of the things sold this past month.

…a 7.64-carat blue diamond sold for more than $8 million, a 48,000-square-foot home in Bel Air, Calif., went for $50 million and Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” painting brought in $106.5 million.

I have already talked about the Picasso painting in an earlier post of mine. Notte also alludes to the American Express report about people buying because they are happy (which I’ve also covered). Notte says that spending has become increasingly hobby-orientated, with 14% of affluent car lovers making up for more than 40% of automotive spending, 9% accounting for 39% of high-end clothing and the 9% crediting 42% of all travel spending.

We’re also seeing a rise in luxury e-commerce. According to Ben Klayman at Reuters, May saw luxury items, jewellery and products as the fastest-growing sales categories in the U.S retail sector, though sales in apparel and electronics suffered. Consumers are enjoying and valuing their money more but also expecting more.

The Luxury Marketing Council has found that high-end US consumers are largely disenchanted with the level of service provided within the luxury sector.

Complaints range from understaffing to insufficient knowledge of products and their advantages over competing items — increasingly important as wealthy and affluent customers become connoisseurs of their categories of choice and perform increasing amounts of research.

Gregory Furman, chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council says that there is a “great sense of relief among the high-end consumer that the worst is over.” While consumers may be feeling more leisurely towards luxury spending, Gross points out that it ‘may take another year to two of solid growth, market gains, and healthy bonuses before they start to party like it’s 2007.’

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Picasso and Art as an Investment

Isaac Mostovicz writes that a 'deliciously conventional' Picasso goes for an exceptional price...

Pablo Picasso’s Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur or ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ recently sold for a whopping $106.5 million, overtaking the world record set by a previous Picasso piece, Garcon a la Pipe which sold for $104 million in 2004. This is surprising considering it was only predicted to bring in $70 million, and even more so, says Graham T. Beck of The Awl because it has “everything to do with the lowest common denominator” and is “deliciously conventional.”

Agreeing with this is unimpressed New York Times art critic Holland Cotter:

“Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” and other paintings from its period are old and easy, art as usual. They keep to the known, the pleasure zone; they keep old orders firm, artist over subject, man over woman, woman as thing, a pink blob with closed eyes.

Whether you agree with this or not, Beck is quick to point out that it does not matter:

…when it comes to the auction block or the firehouse cookout, the proof isn’t stewing in the pot or penned on the critic’s page but in the dollars paid or the stumpy little fingers of the Napoleonic chief who never calls my name no matter how much salt and cheese I spill into that bubbling pot of ground round.

Putting aside Beck’s chocolate chili parody, what is important here is that Beck seems to suggest that the value of the painting cannot be endowed by a critic’s or professional’s assessment but by its final purchase price. Certainly, want is a crucial factor in determining the value of an item. The more an item is wanted, the more valuable it is and consequently, the more money spent. This reminds me of an old blog post of mine on Damien Hirst’s Diamond skull when I asked:

When the value of a piece is as astronomical as For the Love of God, does the focus necessarily have to shift from art to investment?

Here, it is the $106.5million which has shifted our views from investment to art. What this shows is not only a possible revival in the art market, but also a change in luxury attitudes. This certainly corresponds to an earlier blog post of mine about a new breed of luxury consumer. Roberta Smith of the New York Times is going along the right lines when she questions the coy art of the mystery bidder:

Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast at it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic…

We look on, gape-mouthed, as the figure rises and then clamor to know. We think we are the observers, but actually we are the observed. It is Buyer X who is most in control and who therefore derives the greatest pleasure from the actual transaction. Anonymity only makes it that much more pleasurable and voyeuristic.

If this is true, luxury consumers and their reasons for buying are becoming ever more complicated and dynamic.

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Art auction shows uniqueness is a unique selling point

Isaac Mostovicz writes that those who can afford true luxury will continue to seek it in today’s economic climate...

Earlier this week, Pierre Bergé, partner of the late Yves Saint Laurent, put the pair’s large collection of art up for auction at Christie’s. The results were stunning in today’s economic climate–the works took in $264 million. It’s a good reminder that despite the recession, there are still plenty of wealthy people willing to spend on rare things that they interpret as truly luxurious. The Matisse paintings fetched a great deal in particular, because, as the New York Times notes

Few Matisse paintings of quality come on the market, and each of the three Matisse paintings did better than its estimates.

A Picasso was pulled from the auction when bidding stopped at 21 million euros, less than the 25-30 million euro range expected. Said Isabelle de Wavrin, deputy editor of BeauxArts magazine:

Picassos are not rare. But everyone is looking for a good Matisse.

Those who can afford true luxury will continue to seek it in today’s economic climate–luxury is what makes us human. Those who sell luxury need to ensure that what they’re offering is truly unique.

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