The market limits of JPGs?

If there’s one thing I learned from having a closeup view of the nineties tech boom, it’s that the greater public tend to first underestimate a new technology’s impact (i.e email, txt-msgs, and e-commerce). Then, once it proves itself, they overestimate its utility, using it for purposes far beyond its capacity. We definitely saw Step 1 in the art market, where the initial attempts to do business virtually hit a wall (remember the ebay/Sotheby’s collaboration?), proving to skeptics that, “No one buys art they haven’t seen.”

But then collectors started doing precisely that, and at increasingly high price points. So suddenly people started talking about virtual art markets eliminating the need for gallery spaces. To me, that’s edging far into Step 2 described above, a sort of late-adopter euphoria.

There’s a limit to JPGs, after all, even in the age of 10-megapixel cameras. So I was gratified to spot this, buried way down in yesterday’s Independent article Saatchi’s new stars: collector prepares for new gallery opening:

A spokeswoman revealed [Saatchi’s] buying methods, which included an arrangement with international art dealers in which he could “view” works for 24 hours before deciding on a sale. “He gets sent images sent by about 25 or so young dealers in New York and Los Angeles and they have now got a system in place whereby if he thinks any of the images are interesting, he get the works sent over here for 24 hours so he can see them properly. If they are not for him they can be sent back the following day,” she said.

As a collector, Saatchi is famously rapid and risk-taking. Yet dozens of works are flying along the NY-LON and LA-LON axes so he can study them in person. Given his influence, that seems like a clear signal that the buying-by-JPG concept has reached the backlash stage of its art-market hype curve. Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “The market limits of JPGs?”

  1. I think the JPG phase is alive and well and here to stay. What you describe is probably better characterized through the distinction of “bespoke” vs. “retail” art collecting. If you’re Charles Saatchi (and a handful of other patrons I assume) you are in the position to have pictures sent to you for you review. The corrolary of the bespoke art collection — the walk-in closet, if you will, of bespoke-collected goods — would be the private museum (sorry for stretching the metaphor to the max). Bespoke patronage also gives you access to custom written laudatory criticism and early peeks at fairs and gallery shows. This is all part of a phenomenon well described in the new book Richistan, by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank, according to which differentiation among the wealthy is an even more salient feature of our times than differentiation between the rich and everyone else. Back to your JPG question: I think the anwser is that bespoke collecting will only generate a greater appetite for retail collecting, and thus even more JPG use.

  2. This reminded me of Amy Cappellazzo’s comment on hearing about the Tom Friedman exhibition at Gagosian in Beverley Hills in February, which sold out by jpeg before it opened. “I don’t know if this is the beginning of something wonderful or the end of something wonderful,” Amy told the New York Times. I’d say it’s still the beginning, but how “wonderful” it will be may depend, as András suggests, on who you are and what influence you wield. I too recall my “close-up view of the ‘nineties tech boom,” working for an art price database. Back then, many art market professionals disparaged such resources in public but used them in private. How influential have art indices become? And then there’s eBay, recently used by the Dutch to offload unloved artworks from the national collection. Once deaccessioning really kicks in, as I believe it will, privileged access to jpegs, of the kind Saatchi enjoys, could really turn up the heat while preserving the discretion so precious to museums. All these technologies are in their infancy. It’s the interfaces that are still found wanting.

  3. Even before the advent of JPGs, art dealers mailed slides or transparencies to clients. Sales were made on this basis, especially if there were long waiting lists for a particular artist or body of work. Few collectors had the clout of a Saatchi: to demand shipment and 24 hour examination prior to sale, with the option to return. Collectors had to decide to buy work actually unseen, based on their appetite for a particular artist, and the fear that if they didn’t bite, someone else would.

    The same situation applies today, exacerbated by a super bull market and the swift delivery of JPGs via high speed Internet. What has changed is not the intrinsic mechanism but the speed of transmission, and the speed and size of the market. So buying-by-JPG has not yet reached a backlash phase, and probably will not until the market itself corrects. But once it does, and the pressure to buy is lessened, purchase of unseen work will undoubtedly be an early casualty.

    Meanwhile, one reaction against JPGs as the lingua franca of commerce is possibly evidenced in the recent rapid growth of art fairs, which seem to establish new records for sales and attendance with each new outing. Fairs return us to a simpler model: the big tent, where all players and all objects are assembled and (theoretically) visible to the naked eye. They offer the illusion of the panopticon, the single venue where all is revealed, without recourse to JPGs.

    Of course, this is just a model. The reality is never so simple. For example, some galleries send out huge e-mails full of images just prior to fairs, to preview work they will then show in their booths. So there is no escape from the JPG. Not at the moment. It is just too useful a tool.

  4. Art Review’s Jonathan T. D. Neil sent us this email:

    I’d say I have to agree with Steven Kaplan’s assessment of the JPG as a simple tool of utility. But the JPG isn’t really the issue: What’s at issue is the buying behavior of collectors when transactions become increasingly mediated by technology. One can foresee a day when higher-resolution flatscreens, which are no longer back-lit, as well as high compression technologies which make it easier to send larger image and video packets over the internet, will offer a very attractive way of looking at and making decisions about buying art. Now will this replace the brick-and-mortar gallery? Probably not. But it does extend, as the JPG has already done, a gallery’s reach into markets that were once closed due to geographical distance. Just as it will extend a collector’s reach into galleries in cities other than their own: operations like and the forthcoming are good examples of ways that habitual gallery-goers and collectors can ‘keep up’ with shows in other places; in the end, their success will depend on the quality of their content and production.

    What the Saatchi example points up is the fact that the use (and abuse) of technology for collecting must bear with it a metric that measures the price of the work, the price of shipping and insurance of that work, the potential for a sale to a given collector and the impact that that sale will have on future sales. For some galleries, for some works of art, and for some collectors, it’s simply not going to make sense, economically speaking, for the work itself to travel. In those situations, the JPG and its progeny will rule.

    Now, why works of digital video art have not found a viable online distribution network is a mystery to me.

  5. Let’s not forget that curators have long been selecting shows by proxy, over the internet and email, with globe-trotting curators such as Francesco Bonami admitting that they don’t do studio visits nowadays – there’s no time and besides, today’s hot commodity artists are too disparately scattered around the world.

    While the jpeg still rules over many forms of quick art appreciation – from snaps judgments as to what show I might review, or what work to reserve at an art fair – I would hope that art professionals and serious collectors would still hold out for the long view, for a head-to-head with the real thing.

    We can only hope that collectors such as Saatchi will continue to value the ‘thingness’ of an art object enough to want to try before he buys. However, all this shipping back and forth is only endemic of the problem that the jpeg solves: that of a travel-hungry, carbon-wasteful art world. As an unregulated beast, the jpeg is the only hope when it comes to countering the art business’s reliance on flying and shipping in the pursuit of cultural progress.

  6. I am of the opinion that context to a degree is a part of the artwork. I am never happy with a piece of mine if it does not reproduce well, or if it does not look good in jpeg form. But that is because works end up so far away from me that I rarely get to see them ever again, and the reproduction in many ways is so much more real for me than the thing itself. So you could say to a degree that i make work to exist as a jpeg.

    I am also of the opinion that cultural progress will be had when people learn how to STOP pursuing, and figure out again what it means to take a position. I don’t mean just artists. It is not so hard to get your hands on a great work of art if you are coming from a serious position that has some cultural value. Objects alone cannot do this without the context.

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