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Market for fine art objects continues to recover in fits and starts

John Seelmeyer
Northern Nevada Business Weekly

RENO, Nev. – Dave Pirtle figures he’s sold more wall art at his Eagle Framing & Art Gallery in the past three weeks than he sold in all of the previous year. “People are tired of listening to all of the negativity,” says the owner of the shop in downtown Reno. “They can only wait so long before they start buying things.”

Pirtle’s experience this spring is typical among folks in the arts business in northern Nevada. They describe a market that’s strong only in fits and starts. And they say some segments show consistent strength while others remain moribund.

“Locally, there are still people buying art,” says Peter Stremmel, director of Stremmel Gallery in Reno. “People still are interested in buying interesting and challenging art.”

The gallery draws buyers from across the United States, including some from regions where the economic recovery has taken strong root than it has in Nevada.

But no matter where they live, buyers’ willingness to open their pocketbooks for fine art is closely linked to the optimism they feel about the future course of the economy, Stremmel says.

And because that confidence has been choppy throughout the recession, it’s difficult for folks in the art business to identify clear-cut sales trends.

Just look, for instance, at sales at the store at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Jackie Clay, manager of the store, says the store has sold lots of $15 fused-glass dishes, but $300 glass bowls sat on the shelves.

“People still wanted art, but they had to scale down both in price and size,” Clay says. But she notes that sales of items priced at $200 and $300 have begun to perk up.

Jewelry sales at the store, however, remained strong throughout the downturn – especially pieces by local or easily identifiable artists – and they’re getting even stronger. Joyce Newman, owner of Newman Appraisal Services in Reno, says the very top end of the art market – paintings by Old Masters, for instance – held up fairly well during the recession.

“Over time, the folks who want the best of the best still have money,” she says.

But she says the market remains soft for mid-market pieces – the fine art such as oriental rugs or works by early California impressionists that’s likely to be in the homes of collectors in northern Nevada.

A generational shift, meanwhile, undercuts the market for collectibles treasured by people who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

Typically, Newman says, collectors prize objects from their youth. The Baby Boom generation isn’t interested in the collectibles of its parents’ generation, and the collectibles prized by Baby Boomers draws little interest from Gen-X buyers.

The same recession that dampened prices for fine art, however, forces some owners to sell.

“We’re seeing folks who need to sell their things to meet their expenses,” says Newman. She advises potential sellers to hold on until the market turns, but that’s not always possible.

When they sell, collectors increasingly are using regional and specialty auction houses, the appraiser says.

Idaho’s Coeur D’Alene Art Auction, for instance, has grown into a dominant force in the sale of Western and sporting-themed art, she says, while an art company in Iowa has developed a national name in the field of religious icons.

The growth of regional and specialized auction houses, Newman says, means collectors now face a complex set of choices about the best ways to market fine art.

“Not all auctions are the same. While the large auction houses may be the best venues for very high end fine and decorative arts, regional auctions are often best for mid-range items,” she says.”


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