Galleries vs. auction houses: war declared?
Over the weekend, Artnet.de published a piece of mine titled “Blurred lines, battle lines?” that tackled the controversies surrounding the Huber sale, Haunch of Venison being bought by Christie’s and the fact that TEFAF Maastricht – the premier fair for everything from Old Masters up to Moderns – for the first time included galleries owned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s. (BTW, MAN blogger Tyler Green had a very funny fly-on-the wall moment in the minimalist gray-plywood Christie’s booth – which a friend tells me was being called “le pissoir” by snooty British dealers more attuned to wood molding and plush carpeting.) After running through the various details and insider speculation regarding all three stories – some of which will be familiar to people who have been reading Artworld Salon closely – I tried to put this all in perspective:
What connects these three controversies? The fact that battle lines are being publicly drawn by dealers, traditionally the most discrete players of the artworld. Despite the strength of the market, they feel their position is under attack, be it at art fairs or in the secondary market. Likewise, auction houses – with their huge staffs and sprawling marketing apparatus – are simply better positioned for the new globalized market, able to target collectors no one (not even the houses) knew existed. Suddenly, galleries feel forced to play a much more finance-driven game… Given the current market conditions and the way the artworld has evolved, the traditional model of the gallery building its position through close control of its artists’ [secondary] markets seems shakier than ever. There are too many variables – collectors flipping works at auction, artists defecting to other galleries, sudden market shifts.
What comes next for galleries? Thinking from a purely commercial standpoint, one could theoretically imagine a hybrid model where galleries hold private auctions among those collectors on a hot artist’s waiting list to see who gets the next work. Or art fairs could function like silent auctions, with collectors placing incrementally higher bids on the works displayed in booths. But these are short-term games, unsuited for artists focused on their legacies or for galleries with any interest beside profits. What’s more likely is that the gallery world will strongly bifurcate, with some galleries playing the auction-house game of high finance and volatile marketplaces, while others work only with artists and collectors focused on the longer term.
You can read the piece on Artnet.de to get the details (and to see what Amy Cappellazzo of Christies and gallerist Roland Augustine have to say on these issues). But here’s what I’m curious about for discussion here:
1) Can you imagine any other practices that would hybridize the current auction-house and gallery models? 2) What do you make of the notion that galleries will have to choose which game – short-term or long-term – to play? 3) Is trying to play both games at the same time (as many do now) a losing proposition?