Manhattan dealers blame slump in the world art market on ... El Nino

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The Independent Online
EL NINO, the weather phenomenon that has taken the blame for more evil luck than any other known force of nature, is now being held responsible for a slump in the world art market, writes Vanessa Thorpe.

Art and antiques dealers in New York say the unseasonally warm weather last winter, caused (of course) by El Nino-related freak climatic conditions has taken the shine off the city's auction scene this summer.

Before El Nino, they say, salerooms could always count on the icy grip of a New York winter to shorten the lives of some of the wealthy widows who live along Fifth Avenue or Central Park West.

Once these ladies had passed on and their heirs had divided up the spoils, they would send their worldly goods to go under the auctioneer's hammer. This year, the whispered word in the art world is that the weather has put paid to that.

One dealer, who preferred anonymity, said: "A buoyant art market relies on movement, and warmer winter weather than usual certainly doesn't help, whether that's because of El Nino or global warming."

But while the El Nino theory is being used to explain the art market slump, many dealers are playing it down for reasons of taste, and talking in more diplomatic terms.

A spokesman for Fortress, the New York art removal and storage company, agreed that while it was certainly true that there had been less spectacular releases of family property this year, art-watchers should not jump to conclusions.

"Some dealers and collectors are blaming the moderate winter, but then they are perhaps unfairly comparing this year with the amazing sales last summer," he said, observing that big auctions last year raised almost three times the amount of equivalent events this year (pounds 153m as opposed to pounds 47m in one evening this spring).

In 1997, auctioneers Christie's International was able to increase its first-half sales by 15 per cent, the highest level in seven years, partly as a result of the New York sale of 29 paintings in the Loeb collection of impressionist art, which ultimately fetched pounds 57.3m.

Later in the year, the pounds 126m Ganz family estate also came up on the market, featuring 12 Picassos. At the time, the children of Sally and Victor Ganz - who had made their fortune from costume jewellery - said they had been forced into the sale to meet costly death duties.

Art expert Anna Kuslik of the Arts Loss Register in New York has heard the popular El Nino theory, but believes it is hard to disprove or prove - just like the alleged affects of the weather system itself. "It would be hard to say exactly how many rich widows were normally expected to die each year, anyway," she reasonably pointed out.

Financial insecurity among wealthy Japanese collectors is another theory for the cause of this year's relatively modest receipts. Louis Webre of the renowned New York gallery Doyle said he sees no sign that house clearances have been slowed down by a failure of the wealthy to pass away. "In my 12 years with Doyle, I would say the biggest trend I have noticed is that wealthy people are selling off their goods and simplifying their lives before they die. Instead of hanging onto possessions they are buying new homes in the sun," he added.

Mr Webre does, however, concede that Doyle has expanded its network of regional representatives along the east coast so that it no longer relies on Manhattan business alone.

With weather in the city reaching heatwave status this summer, El Nino may yet redeem itself in the art world: elderly flesh could prove just as susceptible to the heat as to the cold. It makes no difference that analysis by the UK Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research shows that the 1997-98 El Nino event has now almost totally subsided; the powerful reputation of this weather phenomenon lingers on.