The big chill

netjets-alex-katzUnusually cold weather for Miami lent the opening night festivities a somewhat spooky and sinister air. “I though it was a celebrity, but then I realized it was just some people around the space heater,” said one reveler at the Art Basel opening party, at the Delano Hotel, as a group of half naked Brazilian dancers braved the chilly December winds. Then again, it could have been Antonio Banderas.

Yet despite the cold, the crowd pressed on, like a group of tourists who had booked a late season cruise and were determined to make the most of the amenities on board.

And fancy amenities were everywhere in evidence–gifts from a recent, happier past, when ambitious plans for this week were being hatched. Netjets invited people to celebrate Alex Katz at the Raleigh hotel, posting a giant Hollywood-style sign in the sand in the hotel’s garden. Not to be outdone by the Art Basel event down the street, the dancers at this party added juggled burning torches. Mini cupcakes were emblazoned with tiny marzipan Netjets logos–a sweet touch.

Earlier in the day, in the Design District, preparations were going on for the rollout of Design Miami. Under a tent that resembled a giant lace curtain, it was all business as usual. Takashi Murakami’s operation opened up a store to sell a new line of Murakami household objets, including three giant balls, the largest almost eight feet in diamater, festooned with technicolor flowers constructed out of soft and fluffy teddy bear fur. “Is it furniture or is it art?” I inquired. “It can be anything,” the friendly Japanese PR lady obliged.

Continue reading “The big chill”

Message in a bottle

us-cover1Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, which documents the frenzied peak of the recent art boom, arrives next week in American bookstores, just as that boom appears to be sputtering out. Some would call this bad timing. In fact, it’s a stroke of good luck. It puts Ms. Thornton, a Canadian-born, London-based sociologist-turned-journalist, in the enviable position of having captured an epic chapter in art-world history in its entirety. It’s all here, a message in a bottle to be consumed now, to reflect on what just happened, or later, when the action heats up all over again, as something of a cautionary tale. Each chapter examines a facet of the art world – auctions, dealers, art fairs, and so on – in a fluid, breezy style that masks some serious heavy lifting. The intrepid author has spoken to “everybody” in the art world. No detail escapes her attention, from the desk arrangements of her interviewees to their designer footwear. Underneath the glossy surface, however, lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress. And clearly, Sarah (a friend of artworldsalon) was having fun. We caught up with her on the eve of her US book tour to ask her some questions about the book:

ARTWORLDSALON: You are a sociologist turned writer. What was your biggest discovery about the art world?

SARAH THORNTON: I never had a Eureka moment. Instead, I experienced unfolding revelations. I think that’s how the book reads, too. One reason the art world fascinates me is because it is so full of conflict. It’s at once idealistic and materialistic, exclusive and open, petty and lofty. Moreover, the art world is so full of warring factions that writing this book has been like walking through a minefield.

Your book appears in the US just as global markets, and it seems the art market along with them, are entering a period of turmoil. How does it change the book’s message?

I see the book as having a handful of themes. It is a social history of the recent past – a remarkable period in which an unprecedented economic boom infiltrated every corner of the art world, even the consciousness of art students sitting in a left-wing conceptual art think-tank in the middle of the desert. It helps to have documented the structures and dynamics of a bull art market, because we forget them so quickly. Continue reading “Message in a bottle”

And so it starts…

christies-unsold-bacon-portrait-of-henrietta-moraes-1969Bloomberg today reported the dramatic drop in prices achieved at all the major auction houses this weekend.

Sales by Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co made a combined 59 million pounds ($102 million), against minimum estimates of 106.2 million pounds, according to Bloomberg calculations. They follow a five-day auction by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this month that raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million), also about half the presale estimate, as buyers shunned some top lots for being too expensive.

This is of course to be expected as much of the collector market focuses on wealth preservation rather than spending. And galleries in New York have noticed a softening for some time.  Interestingly, though, one normally expects an art market correction 6 to 9 months after stock market crashes.  The question now is whether this is the start of a rout in the contemporary art market or merely a short term, financial market correlated, “correction.”

It also, by the way, raises a question about the other major art story of last week about recent moves by two former senior US museum directors to the private sector. Robert Fitzpatrick moved from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to Christie’s Haunch of Venison, and David Ross moved on from his days at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco to be a partner at Albion.  Whilst I fully understand the attractions of better salaries and less stifling boards, I wonder if their timing was all it could be?

Not everyone is worried though.  I have spoken to two collectors this weekend who said, in effect, “finally a correction: maybe prices will come down to a more reasonable level and we can start buying again.”

So what do you think: Short term correction or start of a rout? A good thing or a bad thing?

The Hirstian knot

bimhf-hirst-with-the-goldDamien Hirst’s decision to sell 223 new pieces direct to auction at Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September represents the breaking of an unwritten rule: thou shalt not defile your dealer. While threatening the very gallery system that helped to make him a household name by selling his work in the first place (and supposedly nurturing and protecting his interests too), Hirst’s solo venture simultaneously slopes the playing field firmly in favour of the artist. He’s not only temporarily freed himself from his artist-dealer honour code, but now attempting to exercise some influence, if not exactly control, over his own market.

It’s recently become clear that Hirst’s 100-strong production line of artisans are producing more than his London gallery can handle, which in turn suggests that he needs this new outlet (if not going so far as to prove that supply has outstripped demand just yet). But could this firesale of familiar-looking works not perhaps herald a brave new world for artists and turn out to be a good thing for the market, allowing some transparency and public visibility into how artist’s reputations are made, for example? Or will such sales be more like grisly art market entertainment, providing on-the-spot popularity contests and some gallows-style bating if the sales should flop disastrously?

There are even suggestions that Murakami will be the next to follow suit, signaling an even deeper shift of power from galleries to auction houses, which may then open the floodgates to similarly commercial-minded artists the world over (Chinese artists are already used to this practice I believe). Hirst has never played by the rules, famously flouting the usual 50/50 split with his galleries, but does this spell the end of the art market as we know it? He divides opinion like no one else, so let’s have a vote. He’s either Damien 666 – the devil in disguise – or Damien 999 (dial 911 in the US) – the art world’s very own emergency services, coming to save the day. Which way do you see it?

Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

Shark_Thompson.jpgA side benefit of the boom has been a stream of new books on the business of art. Given the lack of independently verifiable data, especially about the gallery trade, these books usually promise more than they can deliver. Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Art and Auction Houses (until recently available only in the U.K.) is no exception. But it qualifies as recommended reading for anyone looking for a quick overview of how the art world works.

Thompson, an economist and branding expert, undertook a yearlong “journey of discovery” for this entertaining study of the “economics and psychology of art, dealers, and auctions.” By his description, the book “explores money, lust and self aggrandizement of possession, all important elements on the world of contemporary art.” He admits “much of the anecdotal material and some of the numbers in the book are single-source stories and facts,” which are often “embellished in the retelling” and “accepted as fact because they are repeated as fact.” The candor is refreshing. And to be sure, Thompson has a keen eye for the telling statistic.

With these provisos out of the way, and no endorsement of the accuracy of what follows, here is a glossary of facts and figures from the book (all offered by the author without the benefit of direct references or footnotes):
• “Eight of ten works purchased directly from an artist and half the works purchased at auction will never again resell at their purchase price.” Continue reading “Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”

Art fairs: one artist’s viewpoint

Lisa_Ruyter_03station.jpgWith Art Basel around the corner, this just in from Lisa Ruyter in Vienna:

When I was commissioned to do the art for The Armory Show 2004 catalog, I wrote an introduction that was a rhapsody about my love of art fairs. Not so many years before that, I began showing at Art Basel with Art & Public gallery, with such clear, positive results that I decided to make my largest and most risky piece, a Stations of the Cross, for a five day exhibition at Art Unlimited, with the support of Pierre Huber. This seems like ages ago, but it really isn’t, and my changing feelings about fairs are probably mostly a reflection of my own growth rather than a reflection of trends of the marketplace.

Since then, I have continued to participate in fairs in different ways, including with my own eponymously named gallery, presenting work by other artists. I see the limitations more and more clearly. I am very aware that it gave me an opportunity to develop a broad and solid international system of support for myself as an artist, and with that, secure a large degree of freedom to live wherever I want in the world. I can put my focus on getting involved deeply in local scenes that I really love, and to take much larger risks with my artwork when I want to. It has allowed me to indulge my independence without self-destructing.

As long as these fairs continue in their current popularity and with galleries as their primary clientele, they will continue to be a measure of what makes an important gallery (and also an unimportant gallery). For example, an artist can significantly raise his or her profile by signing up with a gallery that regularly gets into Frieze or Basel, and often there is only room for one or two other fairs in the world to share that top status. To me Basel holds the top spot because it always put the artworks first. But that is another discussion. Continue reading “Art fairs: one artist’s viewpoint”

Any old collector will do

FreudNude.jpgNow that we know who has been paying top dollar at the auctions (Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club as well as a whole lotta gas and oil) this more or less proves that we are relying on the super-rich to hold the buoyant market aloft. There has been a lot of talk about how the art world is staving off signs of a recession thanks to these new ’emerging market’ buyers, but might this trend have further ramifications for the business?

For example, will the dealers cease to hold back their best work for the supposed ‘best’ collectors and museums, preferring instead to keep cashflow high by offloading to those simply holding the biggest, loosest purses? Maybe galleries have been disingenuous all along, merely paying lip service to the sacred idea of artist representation and not really carefully vetting what sells to whom at all. While you can’t stop anyone from buying at auction (indeed, Abramovich might start to be taken seriously as a collector after his recent purchases), will money run roughshod over the hearts and minds of those in the primary market in the same way? Or should I just take my rose-tinted blinkers off?

Speaking of fairs…

Forged_by_Qin_Chong.jpgWent along to the opening of the 5th China International Gallery Exposition (CIGE) here in Beijing on Thursday. Held at the snazzy central China World Trade Centre it gets cleaner and better organised each year. Sadly the Chinese works on display were mostly overpriced and familiar. Even when the artist and work were new. There are exceptions, of course. Urs at Urs Meile and Fabien at F2 are among those trying to build long term relationships with, and long term reputations for, the artists they represent; encouraging development of oeuvre and restraint in pricing. But this is gold rush time for China Contemporary. This sculpture (“Forged by Qin Chong”) probably best illustrates the focus of most Chinese contemporary artists these days.

I did enjoy seeing the work from other galleries around Asia. Attracted by the new deep pockets of the Northern Chinese, galleries from Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Mumbai were all in evidence. Many with their artists in tow. It made for a fun cultural mix in an otherwise fairly quiet VIP evening. They also provided refreshing views, textures and subjects in a room full of yet more pink, bloated cartoonesque Chinese works.

It will be interesting to see how this Fair evolves. There are fewer exhibitors this year (81 vs 118 last year) and there has been a large churn. For example not one of the 5 French galleries that came last year returned. And the number of mainland Chinese galleries who bothered to exhibit is down sharply; 16 this year, down from 39 last year. On the other hand there was a new area upstairs for solo shows of young artists from around Asia (not just China) and a surprising number of dedicated contemporary video art rooms.

Buyers seemed in short supply, however. At least the media present knew who they were after as they hounded the minor TV celebrities that wandered, slightly bewildered, through the exhibits. One interesting thing was the presence of Phillips dePury as one of the sponsors. Not there to launch a new office in Beijing, but to promote their ConArt sale in New York at the end of May. A long way to come for customers.

Interesting times.

Art fairs don’t die they just multiply

ArtCologne.jpeg Maastricht, Armory, Basel, Frieze, Arco, Miami, of course. But Bologna, Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam, Minneapolis and Stockholm? Who goes to these fairs and are they really necessary? Judging by a hilarious and despairing account of selling absolutely nothing at the recent Art Cologne (read his candid fair obituary here), dealer Kenny Schachter seems to be advocating a cull in the number of deadwood art fairs. Cologne’s problems are well documented and numerous leadership wrangles mean that it’ll get another revamp next year, but to what end?

Similarly, it was with much trepidation that a gaggle of young London dealers sloped off to the newly reborn Art Chicago, formerly the US’s pre-eminent art fair, to exhibit in the invited section of its contemporary sideshow NEXT. What concerns most of them is that the new owners Merchandise Mart (who also own the Armory, Volta and the Toronto Fair) were simultaneously holding three other fairs in the same building (The M. Mart International Antiques Fair, The Artist Project and the Intuit Show of Outsider and Folk Art) under the banner of Artropolis, like some kind of multi-storey monster-truck car park for art.

Despite the mild protestations of their president Chris Kennedy (yes, of that family) – ‘We’re not trying to be the Macy’s of the art world’– Merchandise Mart’s new financial muscle and the windy city’s track record suggest that Chicago deserves another crack of the whip, but when will some of these other art fairs learn to just quietly lay down and die? Oh, and how many dealers do you know ever admit to selling very little or nothing at all?

A fair to remember?

Armory08.jpgNow that the Armory Show and it’s progeny have packed up, perhaps it’s time for a little stock taking. For my own part, the Armory began as something of a disappointment. “Sleepy” was the word I found myself using to describe it. There were no grand gestures, such as Kris Martin’s one-minute-of-silence loudspeaker announcement at last year’s Frieze or Sassolino’s sovereign robotic metal claw at ABMB. Even the requisite installation piece by Thomas Hirschorn was rather subdued, opting to display a library of High Theory books instead of images of decimated bodies.

But as I returned over the course of a couple of days, I grew more comfortable with what I think can only be called the Armory’s “maturity,” which may be summed up thus: less spectacle, more substance. I was particularly taken once again with the Ronald Feldman Gallery’s commitment to a solo showing of an artist of particular historical import; in this case, Eleanor Antin. And I was happy to find that the absence of Gagosian, Goodman and Gladstone, amongst others, did not necessarily “diminish” the fair.

Of the other venues, I believe Volta NY will stand as a signal example of how art fairs can successfully adapt to their ever-changing fitness landscape. The small size and single-artist exhibition directive put to rest, definitively to my mind, the idea that art fairs cannot possibly be good places “to see the art.” It’s a risky venture to be sure, and not all galleries will find it suited to the necessities of their bottom line, but it seemed good for the artists, who can confidently add it to their CVs as one more “solo show,” and it was a gift to the viewer, one which obviated the need for a stiff drink once the rounds had been made.

I’m curious, of course, to know what others think.

Pass the crystal ball, please

ADAA.jpgIf you have been following the US election campaign, Saturday’s ADAA/MoMA panel on “Art Dealers and Auction Houses: A Cultural Divide” had a familiar ring to it. It felt like a presidential debate.

The teams of gallery and auction-house heavyweights – boasting “150 years of combined art-world experience” – exuded statesmanlike politesse. Some waxed doubtful about the gathering’s antagonistic premise, and none more so than Simon de Pury, who in his trademark, honey-dipped accent declared, “I find it amusing to hear about the so-called divide between auctions and dealers. We all have a great responsibility toward the artist.”

The jolly, why-can’t-we-just-get-along mood was breached only by occasional episodes of harpoon throwing, such as when Andrea Rosen compared auctioneers to sharks. “Sharks aren’t bad,” she offered, quoting an unnamed artist in her gallery, “They are opportunists. They take the fish that’s easiest to get.” But even Amy Capellazzo of Christie’s refused to take the bait.

Moderated by the unflappable Lindsay Pollock (an ArtWorld Salon friend), the discussion checked off various merits and weaknesses of the two art-business camps, and even lingered on their interdependencies. Among the more engrossing points was the one suggested by Michael Findlay, the panel’s ranking member by age, who cited “normal accident theory” to illustrate how galleries may prove more resistant in a recession. “The larger the system,” he said, “the more likely there will be catastrophic failure.” Comparing galleries to “mom and pop shops” that can be flexible in the face of a downturn, he concluded, “We may be the safest bet in the future.” Although he was making the comparison to auction houses, he could as well have been referring to art fairs, some of which, as Ian points out in the previous thread, may also quickly become casualties of a severe downturn.

The best came at the end, when it was time to opine about what’s around the corner. David Zwirner predicted that “Things will soften a bit, there will be a slight shakeout, but medium and long-term prospects are very good.” Michael Findlay suggested, “What will come back to the market is a degree of selectivity that has been lacking.” According to Andrea Rosen, “Some of this is already happening. I’ve learned a lot from opening my gallery during a recession. I already see a reorientation to meaning.”

“It’s impossible not to have the uncertainty in the larger markets effect our market,” said Amy Cappellazzo, adding that people are likely to gravitate to “what makes them feel safe,” such as painting. For Anthony Grant of Sotheby’s, the “market is so international now” and “the way people make money is so different,” that it has become difficult to make predictions. Simon de Pury got the last word: “It’s an issue of availability,” he said. “The only thing you can do, if you have money, is to build the best contemporary art collection in the world. The market is just beginning to be truly global … I feel very optimistic.”

What does your crystal ball say?

Online art auctions

online_auctions.jpgThe ArtNet announcement that they are to shortly begin an online auction service is the latest in a string of online auction initiatives. This seems a logical move from one of the better sources of ArtWorld statistics and prices. But what does this wave of online initiatives mean for the big boys? Obviously consignors of major works will still want the profile and prestige of the established offline auction houses, Sothebys, Christies et al, but if more bread and butter work starts to go through online systems, whither then the profit margins of the major houses?

And what if the new players start to gain traction in the market place? It should be easier to track prices online in real time across a number of different online sales platforms than it is now. And of course let us not forget that the biggest benefit of online transaction systems is the better access it gives buyers to product; access when they want it. This, beyond the help it gives sellers to put works forward in convenient and price efficient form, is what decides the success or otherwise of any online sales system. And of course if middle and lower level consignors start using online channels we may get better visibility on pricing and trends in a chunk of the market that is usually hidden from public view.

It is easy to be sceptical of online transaction systems. One always assumes there are some items that people need to see or touch for themselves before committing to a purchase. I certainly felt that way when I first heard about eBay selling cars or artworks online. But look at the success they have had. This may start at the bottom end of the market but, as with so many other sectors, quality of products offered rises with reach of market. I think we are witnessing the first steps of a paradigm shift in the Art World market place.

It is also potentially another worrying development for the traditional galleries. They are already losing footfall to people who prefer to see more-work-in-less-time at the fairs and biennials. An effective new online market place could also take footfall from them (or direct it elswhere) and, potentially, encourage more bright young artists to avoid galleries and promote directly online. All such artists would need is one respected critic to validate their work and they could sell “direct from the studio”.

Interesting times. Thoughts?

Miamimania

miami.jpg

Calvin Klein, Tamara Mellon, Donna Karan, Laudomina Pucci, Vivienne Tam, Kenzo, David LaChapelle, Doug Aitken, Jack Pierson, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, Terence Koh, Dennis Hopper, David Byrne, Keanu Reeves, Steve Martin, Russell Simmons, Lou Reed, Jerry Speyer, Eli Broad, Steve Cohen, Peter Brant, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Aby Rosen, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone, Andrea Rosen, Barbara Gladstone, Lisa Phillips, Tom Krens, Michael Govan.

What do these people have in common? They’re all going to Miami, of course.

“In ten days,” as fellow Salon writer Steve Kaplan wrote in our recent thread on why people collect, “this culture (or sub culture) will descend in all its sound and fury upon Miami. The attendant rituals of conspicuous consumption, of snubbing and embracing, of preening and prowling, of “perilous journeys across the seas separating the small islands”, might even give the Trobrianders pause. And one can only imagine what an observer with the sensitive antennae of a Malinowski or a Levi-Strauss would make of it all, trudging down Collins Avenue, notebook in hand.”

So, why are YOU going? What are you expecting to get out of Art Basel Miami Beach? What are you excited about? What are you dreading? What are your must-go exhibits, special events, parties? What’s your strategy for making it through the fair and how will you make sense of it all? Please send your thoughts and best advice.

To regulate or not…

logo_salander.jpgThe apparent failure of a prominent gallery in New York this week (NYT, NYO, Bloomberg) is causing ripples within the international Art community. Whether the truth is about weaknesses in financial management (as suggested by Salander’s lawyer) or something more sinister is beside the point. Many are now asking whether, with the growing number and size of transactions, a more formal, and compulsory, oversight system is necessary for the Art world to protect individual buyers and sellers.

At various times on this site we have discussed the relative lack of transparency of the Art market and talked about some of the mechanisms that exist in other markets. For example financial institutions that take deposits and make loans are required, in most countries, to keep a minimum reserve in hard cash to allow for problems. In quoted markets for publicly traded assets, whether company shares, pork bellies or barrels of oil, every transaction must appear on a public register and be open to all bidders. No transactions are allowed to take place that do not appear on the register/exchange. In addition any market maker or analyst must declare any interest they have in assets being sold by them or through entities associated with them. None of this, of course, happens in the Art world. But all of it could.

What do you think? Do we need some of these rules? Has the Art market now reached the stage that it NEEDS regulating to protect individual buyers and sellers? Or should we continue to rely on members of the community outing their peers before things go bad? Are there less cumbersome alternatives that could be put in place? I once suggested a public register for all transactions of works by major artists. The register would be a standard for the industry. Galleries and Artists could choose to be on the register or not. If on, ALL works traded must be listed, with the date and verifiable transaction price. If not, they don’t appear on the register at all. Ultimately all quality artists and galleries would probably opt to be visible; because anything not on the register would be considered a “lower grade investment”. Views?

Anti-market ruse, or Insta-Collection?

In a few weeks, “For Sale,” a show curated by Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute, will open at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art in Lisbon. Hoffmann’s statement describes the exhibition as a reflection of the current trend toward curators organizing shows in commercial galleries, a tactic which downplays the space’s art-dealing in favor of its cultural role. Playing slightly deuxième degré, Hoffmann has asked the artists that he selected for works directly reflecting the fact that the show takes place in a commercial context. The artists lists is strong, multi-generational and brainy, including Allora & Calzadila, John Baldessari, Elmgreen & Dragset, Andrea Fraser, Ryan Gander, Louise Lawler, Tim Lee, Jonathan Monk, Raymond Pettibon, Tino Sehgal, and Mario Garcia Torres.

Here’s the interesting twist: “None of the works in the exhibition can be bought individually and the show can only be acquired as a whole. This fact… obstructs the eventual purchase of the art works – it is clearly more expensive and far more complex to acquire a whole show rather than an individual work. While seemingly completely embracing the commercial aspect of the gallery, FOR SALE in fact tries to obstruct routine business.”

I’d love to see this show due its artists and concept, yet I’m especially curious how effective Hoffmann’s dictate will prove in its stated objective. Frankly, I would not be entirely surprised if some collector takes the plunge, given the mixture of hot young names and established stars, plus Hoffmann’s own curatorial imprimatur. (Obligatory disclosure: Hoffmann curates the Art Perform section of Art Basel Miami Beach; we also once survived a kimchi-and-karaoke night out together in Gwangju, Korea.) After all, if art-market history teaches us anything, it’s that the market is endlessly inventive and surprising when confronted with attempts to obstruct or circumvent it. For someone with tons of money and a big display space, who also happens to share Hoffmann’s taste, the Lisbon show could prove an attractive way to turbo-charge their collection. (Or a museum, better yet.) If it “fails,” this concept could prove strikingly successful for everyone concerned.

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?

Chinese copy-painters come to Zurich

The art scene is slow in Zurich this time of year, like everywhere else. But there’s always room for a little controversy. Last weekend’s concerned the newly established Splügen-Gallery (all text in German), where the business model runs thus: You give them an image of an artwork, and they have it painted for you in Shenzhen Dafen, China, at whatever dimensions you like. The cost? Roughly $450-$900, frame included.

The eclectic first show features works “by” Gustav Klimt, Roy Lichtenstein and Tamara de Lempicka. Naturally, Pro Litteris, the Swiss artists-rights association, objects strongly, arguing that “to reproduce an image you need permission from the artist or their representative.” The gallery’s owner, Chris Rüegg, counters that he’s checked with his lawyers and it’s all perfectly legal.

One thing’s sure: Given the predicted vector of the Chinese contemporary-art scene, Splügen customers might do well to inquire precisely who painted their duped Picasso, Prince, Weischer, or Wool, and keep that name in their bank vault. After all, Western art history is full of people who went from doing commercial art to being canonized artists. Just look at the recent prices for Warhol sketches from his illustrator days.

Thoughts?

Summer math camp

The three co-founders of Artworldsalon intersected in London last week. Two of them went on to ogle Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull, about which a report shall soon follow, and which is undeniably the talk of the town. Visitors particularly seem to appreciate the gesamtkunstwerk atmosphere. It’s not just the skull but the full-court theatre around it, including the thuggish Mafia-style security guards. More on that carnival attraction from the eyewitnesses who saw it.

The real eye candy for me this summer in London was at the National Gallery, which has organized a spellbinding show of Dutch portraiture, a true diamond gem of an exhibit. A less noticed visual art event awaits at Heathrow airport. A slick video about security procedures now playing on a row of flat-panels right above the baggage X-ray machines is a sight to behold. It looks like it was produced by Matthew Barney in collaboration with the people who make Apple’s iPhone commercials. Slow-motion shots from edgy avant-garde camera angles (e.g. bird’s eye view of gorgeous passenger walking through metal detector) capture models of attractively blended origin as they glide through the ritualistic passage of belt removal, laptop opening, and body frisking. Their dignified countenance and beatific smiles radiate an inner calm, as though they were being cleansed; suspicions erased, innocence reasserted.

Anyway, on to matters at hand. One of the delights of airplane time is the freedom to read even the smallest articles in The Economist, including the little teaser for their blog, Free exchange, which on June 26 posted a fascinating roundup of variables shown empirically to influence the prices of paintings. Quoting from Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover your Inner Economist, they posit the following relationships:

“1 Landscapes can triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.

2 A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy. Chrysanthemums and lupines (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.

3 There is a price hierarchy for animals. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to game birds the following rule of thumb holds: the more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and the painter should show the animal from the front, not the back. Continue reading “Summer math camp”

Collectors, consultants, complications…

Catching up on my Memorial Day/Pentecost weekend reading, I came across an upbeat-on-the-art-market New York Times piece, The Art of Buying Art, With the Help of an Adviser. It’s pretty pro-adviser, explaining all the various services the right one can provide. Including making you tons of money, as witnessed by the article’s kicker quote: “[Advisor Stacey Winston-Levitan] recalled a phone call a few months ago from one of her clients who wanted to thank her for her advice to buy a John Baldessari piece for $20,000 in the early 1990s. The client had just been offered $500,000 for it. ‘As an art adviser,’ she said, ‘those are the calls you love to get.’”

Slotted in the NYT Business section (not the culture pages), with the section head “Spending,” this piece was classic “service journalism,” i.e. intended to help the reader in dealing with their lives, finances, etc. Which is why it seemed a little weird to see how quickly it skimmed over one of the potentially thorniest issues in the collector/consultant relationship: Compensation. As the Times informs us, “Consultants can charge by the hour, by the project or on a retainer basis. They may also charge a percentage of the price of the art they help acquire.” But as I noted in this month’s Art Newspaper article “The problem with art advisors,” this can be filled with unexpected implications for the novice collector that the Times piece targets:

At its cleanest, [compensation] is straightforward: the collector pays a retainer, usually based upon the ambition level of the projected collection and the speed with which it’s supposed to be completed. Much more frequently, the consultant is paid a commission on each sale by the gallery. To the extent that there’s an industry standard, it’s 10 percent. But in reality, that’s just a baseline number. “With some of my artists, like Josephine Meckseper, where demand is high, the price is the price—if they want a  ­commission, a consultant needs to work it out with their client,” says dealer Elizabeth Dee of New York. “With other artists, I can be more  ­flexible. But you never want to give them more than 10 percent , even though many consultants come asking for 15 percent or even 20 percent.”

… The problem with fluctuating commissions goes beyond the dealer’s profit margin: it also means that advisors have a financial incentive to deal more with one gallery than another, which can skew their clients’ collections toward the artists of the galleries from whom the advisor reaps the best rewards. “I’m very blunt with  ­consultants—I tell them that I want to build a long relationship with them, and that commissions start when we do our fifth or sixth deal,” says Ed Winkleman. “But I know with some consultants that if there’s no  ­commission, they’re not coming back.” Continue reading “Collectors, consultants, complications…”

Clippings from the salon floor, #10

diamond skull Bling and nothingness? Damien Hirst, quoted re his  £50 million diamond-encrusted skull in the Financial Times article What else can you spend your money on?: “The idea is very blingy but it turns out to be something much more. The way it looks is amazing. You almost believe that it is a victory over death.”

Immortality for a mere  £50 million? Hirst again, in the same article, re the art market’s allure to his peers among the superwealthy: “If you want to own things, art is a pretty good bet. Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it, let people in for free. That’s as close as you can get to immortality.”

“See it Venice, buy it in Basel Venice” From The Art Newspaper’s Venice Biennale proposes becoming a selling show again: “The Venice Biennale used to sell art openly—from 1942 to 1968. The Italian dealer Ettore Gian Ferrari had the official job of placing works for any willing artist, earning 15 percent for the Biennale and 2 percent for himself. ….When the president of the Biennale, Davide Croff, realised that Cornice [Fair] had the support of all the public authorities…and of a number of prominent art world figures… he considered whether the Biennale should start selling again from 2009.”

Signor Croff, non c’e piu bisogno di vendere l’arte, metti all’asta le camere d’albergo! From ARTINFO.com’s Phillips de Pury auction report: “Before the auction began, Simon de Pury announced that one member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s International Directors Council would not be able to make it to Venice and had asked that he take bids on her room at the Hotel Cipriani, with proceeds from the unofficial sale going to the museum. A flurry of bids brought the accommodations up to $45,000.” Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #10”