Brazil’s art market resists…


Facing the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, the domestic market for Brazilian artists has remained relatively buoyant compared with the international market, with slow sales in New York and London.

Less than 10 years ago, Brazil was seen as a model of virtue by a large segment of the international art community who believed Brazil was about to become the market’s new Eldorado. The country’s magnetism was strong enough to attract the biggest international galleries, with David Zwirner, Sadie Coles, Hauser & Wirth and the Gagosian all taking positions on the ArtRio art fair despite the extremely heavy import duties applied to cultural goods. A number of new structures emerged including art galleries (some of which took on colossal dimensions like the Raquel Arnaud gallery with no less than 930 m2 in Sao Paulo in 2011), associations to promote Brazilian artists into the international art market and various Brazilian investment companies focused on giving advice on and investing in works by their compatriots1, etc.

As the “Brazilian Art boom” materialised, the prices of works by the country’s artists rose rapidly on the auction market and the LatAm art specialists at Sotheby’s, Phillips and Christie’s were all looking forward to an excellent business climate. Naturally… works by the handful of artists already at the forefront of the Brazilian art scene started inflating rapidly… Sergio DE CAMARGO’s Relief fetched a new auction record in 2009 at $1.5 million in New York, tripling its his high estimate. Four years later, another Camargo work, only half the size of Relief, fetched a substantially higher price, exceeding $2 million3. In short between 2009 and 2014, all the dealers, private collectors and museums had their hopes pinned on the providential development of the Brazilian art market which, in itself, triggered a strong surge in prices.

But over the last three years, the dream has substantially unravelled. In a deep political and economic crisis, Brazil is going through a critical period. The country is undermined by corruption scandals and shaken by acts of violence… a context that appears to have impacted the confidence of the country’s art market professionals. The loss of confidence on the country’s domestic market may well have been exacerbated by the White Cube’s decision in 2015 to close its Brazilian branch just a few months after the start of the Petrobras scandal. However Brazil’s gallerists and dealers have not given in to pessimism and even White Cube has maintained contact with Brazil via the São Paulo art fair (SP Arte), the last edition of which was particularly lucrative for the British gallery.

While major galleries, like White Cube, as well as museums, including the Tate, the Whitney Museum, the Met Beuer and the MoMA, have continued to promote the Brazilian art scene, the international secondary market for the country’s artists has lacked buoyancy. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have all promoted Brazilian artists through sales in London and New York (including Os Gemeos, Vik Muniz, Cilco Meireles, Lygia Pope, Sabastiao Salgado and Ernesto Neto) in recent years and the solidity of the price indices of these artists has essentially depended on the activity of these auction houses and on support from galleries outside Brazil.

Indeed, recognition by the international market was seen as the primary condition for the comfortable development of the country’s domestic market. Today, however, it’s Brazil own galleries and collectors who are driving the prices of their Brazilian artists at Brazilian sales, proving their determination to continue promoting the art of their compatriots, some of whom have scored new records in their own country… while the Anglo-Saxon market appears to have lost steam on the same signatures.

A complex but vibrant trade in art

Brazil’s art market is resisting. Gallerists, both Brazilian and foreign, are working hard to get through the crisis without yielding to the ambient gloom. At last April’s fourth edition of the SP-Arte fair – the largest international art fair in Latin America – not only were the major international galleries present (including David Zwirner, Marian Goodman and the White Cube ), they also generated handsome profits. Better still… the political situation does not seem to have put a brake on transactions. The fair’s sales showed good results for major international signatures (including Allan McCollum, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) and for Brazilian artists as well. A work by TUNGA fetched $140,000 while several works by Vik MUNIZ (1961), OSGEMEOS, Carlito CARVALHOSA and even younger artists like Paulo Nimer PJOTA (born 1988) quickly found buyers. Representatives of cultural institutions also took advantage of the fair to add to their collections: the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid purchased a work by Cildo MEIRELES and the Dia Foundation in New York acquired a sculpture by Renata LUCAS (born 1971).

It is nevertheless worth noting that the success of SP-Arte may well be related to its rather particular context: every year its organizers negotiate a temporary tax relief with the government on the sale of artworks during the fair. For a few days, Brazil’s prohibitive sales tax drops from 50% on average to just 15%… The vitality of SP-Arte is therefore substantially based on this temporary agreement, since galleries often pre-sell their works well before the fair, but finalize the transactions at the fair in order to take advantage of the tax relief. In Brazil, the art market’s resistance is also a question of organization…

1The Brazilian investment company Capital Pluriel opened a fund mainly focused on the acquisition of works by Brazilian artists.

3Sergio de Camacho, Untitled, sold for $2.165 million at Sothebys New York, on 20 November, 2013.