Anyone want to make a bid on 1991? So far it seems to be the year nobody wants. And nowhere is the change in the financial mood more evident than in the world of auctions themselves.
A tale of two celebrities dramatizes the startling shifts at the top - and also suggests two groups that may actually be making hay while the economic sun doesn't shine.First, though, the big-name losers. And who could be bigger (at least in his own mind) than Donald Trump? The arrogant entrepreneur used to suggest that his name carried such magic that he could price his classy apartments at any level he chose. What need could a titan like him possibly have for a vulgar auction?
Now, though, Trump has been forced to hire an auction house to sell off 35 condominiums at his Trump Plaza in West Palm Beach, Fla. And, in less than two hours, the beleaguered Trump organization duly netted nearly $9 million, at prices ranging from $180,000 to $720,000. Which was terrific, unless you know that the Donald's asking prices for those properties had ranged from $300,000 to $1.8 million.
Still, though, a sale's a sale, in these more difficult times - and it was more than our other glamorous vendor, Elizabeth Taylor, was able to make when she put her Van Gogh up for auction at Christie's in London last month. The painting, which had a pre-sale estimate of $16 million to $20 million, failed to draw a bid.
What kind of a world are we living in when Taylor, who wants to sell something at auction, can't - and Trump, who would prefer to disdain such markets entirely, has to?
Clearly, one in which many recent speculative excesses are still being worked off. Sotheby's has admitted that its autumn sales of art and antiques fell fully 50 percent, as compared with a year ago, and Christie's has cut its staff by 10 percent.
Who, then, are the winners in this grisly scenario? First, possibly, the buyers - those able to snap up previously unattainable treasures at beaten-down prices. At the ultra-glitzy level, Michael L. Ainslie, president of Sotheby's Holdings, acknowledged to me that big hits had been taken in Impressionist and Contemporary painting sales but contended that this shouldn't trouble anyone with a long-term perspective: "Frankly, some of us in the business are not too disappointed, because those markets clearly had been bid to very, very high levels, and we've had some old collectors recently saying they're delighted that they're able to come back in and buy now."
In other words, be it a zillion-dollar art treasure or a multithousand-dollar condo, it's not necessarily a terrible thing for a purchaser to be able to buy low.
Another group that is unarguably benefiting from the collapse of much of the real estate market is the more than 700 auction houses that sell office buildings, condominiums, homes and even the defunct savings-and-loans seized by the federal government in the past few years.
It's estimated that $30 billion in real estate was auctioned off last year, three times the total in 1980, and the number could be significantly higher in 1991; the S&L bailout agency, the Resolution Trust Corp., is expected to use the auction technique aggressively to get rid of some of its $18 billion in real estate assets. Auctioneers net between 5 and 10 percent of whatever is sold at their houses.
As William Lange, president of LFC Real Estate Marketing Services (which handled the Trump auction), put it to me, "The auction is a `win' situation, and its appeal to the owner is simple. It clears out his inventory in one day. Even at discount prices, he saves thousands of dollars in carrying costs by not having to sit on his assets."
Many real estate brokers resent the entry of auctioneers into their area, believing that auctions disrupt normal market forces and can send prices plummeting. Expect tensions to increase in 1991 between these rival intermediaries. Meanwhile, there will be bucks to made by the auctioneers and bucks to be saved by wily buyers. Who knows? Maybe Taylor's price will come down enough that you can hang that Van Gogh next to Aunt Sally's photo in the family room. Do I hear any bids?