June 14, 2008 / 12:01 AM / 9 years ago

Affordable Art Fair cashes in on economic gloom

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lauren Albert couldn’t resist the floppy-eared clay dog sculpture sitting on a pedestal, and the best thing about it was the price -- just $528, which makes it cheap even at a show called the Affordable Art Fair.

While some artists fear the economic downturn could hurt sales for what is a luxury item, experts say the general financial gloom could help sales at the annual fair, as people who would normally spend more on art seek out a bargain.

“There are pieces that a couple of years ago I would have bought but now I‘m nervous about it, in the $7,000 to $10,000 range,” Albert, a 44-year-old attorney, said as she waited for her dog sculpture by artist Virginia Dowe to be wrapped.

Venezuelan photographer Leslie Gabaldon said she had been nervous about sales since art was a luxury item, but she was pleased to have sold three works on Wednesday, the opening day of the Affordable Art Fair, which runs through Sunday.

“I was afraid with the economy, everything is so bad, but I guess it’s nothing to do with art,” Gabaldon said, standing by a group of photographs of snow-covered branches and flowers lit up by sunshine, inspired by Chinese art.

Her prices start at around $250 for one photograph, though she would rather sell a set of 10 mounted as an installation.

Ross Bonfanti, another artist whose work was at the lower end of the $10,000 price limit at the fair, said he had sold several of his animal sculptures, made by emptying the stuffing out of stuffed toys bought in thrift stores, filling them up with concrete and then ripping off the fabric.

“The market in New York is really strong in the sense that there’s a lot of people who appreciate art,” said Bonfanti.

Gallery owner Jerry Dale McFadden’s booth featured $350 rolling pins adorned with lace garter-belts by Vadis Turner, who said her art explores changing gender roles.

“At the opening, we sold four things but they were definitely under $500, so I’ll be curious to see if there will be sales of higher priced things or not,” McFadden said.

Now in its seventh year, the show has had total sales of $2 million to $2.5 million in recent years.

MID-LEVEL BLUES

Elizabeth von Habsburg, president of independent art appraisal and consulting firm Gurr Johns Masterson, said recent sales at major auction houses showed the top end of the U.S. art market was still booming, helped by Chinese, Middle Eastern and other foreign buyers enjoying the weak dollar.

“It’s the mid-level that’s hurting, the $50,000 to $750,000 works of art,” von Habsburg said in a phone interview.

“At the lower end things should be OK because there’s still a lot of disposable income around. If it’s reasonably enough priced there will be a very strong market for it,” she said.

One area of the business that was doing well, van Habsburg said, was art financing, as wealthy people with liquidity problems were using their artwork as collateral for loans.

“A lot of clients are very concerned with what they have. There’s been an increase in loans on works of art,” she said.

Tom Sowanick, chief investment officer at Clearbrook Financial in Princeton, New Jersey, and an art collector, said that while there was still plenty of money around at the top end, the mid-level market was shrinking as potential buyers looked for better value in all areas of their spending.

“Going down in price scale (for art) is no different than changing your driving patterns,” Sowanick said.

For collectors like Chuck Loesner, a 42-year-old lawyer at the fair, the economic outlook was not the problem. “It’s really the wall-space outlook. We have stuff stacked up next to the couch. Now we’re looking for a bigger apartment.”

Editing by Doina Chiacu and Todd Eastham

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