Art dealing in the age of price porn: Further Adventures in the Wade Guyton Market


As you may recall, reader, several weeks ago I wrote on this blog of my travails in obtaining a Wade Guyton painting in the midst of a market surge in the artist’s work. Let’s pick up the story where we left off, back on the Eurostar, chasing a Guyton Multi-X painting, this time no longer en route to Paris, but rather to Brussels. Hard as it may be to fathom, the situation got even more surreal, bringing me face to face with a degree of covetousness I never imagined existed—even I, a confirmed materialist.

The game plan was that a hapless and adorably mean-spirited collector friend of mine would accompany me to this godforsaken place—outside its charming center, Brussels can be downright Dantesque in its grimness—for no other reason than love. For me, sure, but mostly for art, and for the chase. Off we went at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m. to track down an elusive X in a haystack, a large-scale Wade Guyton X painting, the holy grail in the current, inflated, hyper-quick-to-judge contemporary art market.

We were met at the Brussels train station by an independent art dealer who joined us for the 60 km taxi ride to the Guyton-owning collector’s home on the outskirts of the city, a ride that, in an ominous sign of things to come, somehow turned into 110 km. Our destination was a distinctly unattractive town. I happen to be someone who celebrates the bad, but this was worse, eerie, Twilight Zone-ish. More importantly, it didn’t feel like a particularly arty place. Was this to be a wild goose chase? In the pouring rain, amidst ugly, generic buildings, a door was opened to reveal a reassuringly familiar face, one whose defining feature is an unusually prominent proboscis. Aha, I thought, so the seller was The Nose, a face familiar from any number of international art fairs and biennials.

No sooner did she appear in the door than the links in the dealing chain separating art from owner expanded, as another agent could be seen hovering behind her. The layers of intermediaries here, not counting my poor collector friend who’d been dragged out of bed just for the fun of it, was swelling to weird proportions, even for the art world. There was the owner, her agent, my friend’s agent, and my friend.

And the art—where was the art?

Ah, there it was, wedged under a heavily cracked ceiling above a stairway. You could view it from the stairwell or the landing. The lighting was meager. Even from the head of the stairs, the vantage point was too high for any kind of eye level assessment. Squinting up at this Guyton, I realized that it had already been offered to me more than once and I’d passed on it—no image had been sent prior to the Brussels trip. Then again, this made sense. We no longer reside in the past, where an over-exposed painting, one that had been offered around on the market, would be considered burned. Instead, we now dwell in a turbocharged art market—price porn is the new norm.

I was understandably uneasy about buying an artwork for just over a million dollars that had blazed across the computer screens of many an art dealer over the summer, but, still, I had to make the leap—I’d come this far, hadn’t I? I told The Nose I’d commit, which is usually all that’s required to seal the deal in the art world.

My decision was immediately chased by an unsettling feeling: had I just done something stupid?

Back in London, of course, I had other Guyton fish to fry. I’d found a small X painting. Even despite its big price, I’d had to fend off competing dealers, and in the process had to do some financial gymnastics, a kind of pre-invoice, where a friendly dealer (yes, they exist) pays for an artwork you’d like to buy before you are even invoiced, to stave off competing bids. And I’d managed to get an unheard of (for Guytons) 10 percent discount—the price was under $500,000.

And another over-offered Guyton had surfaced, for just over $1 million, in this case a single, large-scale, light-colored X that I had been offered at least four times in the past, beginning over six months ago. I’d passed on it, and passed again. It’s feast or famine locating Guytons, but an enormous gulf separates the shopped-around and haggard from the elusive, fresh-to-market works.

This seems a good enough time as any to say that overexposure of certain contemporary artists and their works is the handiwork of the jpeg jockeys, agents who cast a wide net by spreading digital images of artworks around the world. What spreads faster than the MRSA superbug virus? An art adviser hitting the send button a few hundred times after telling an owner they’d only offer a painting to one client.

This brings us to last week. Grabbing a sandwich at the Frieze Art Fair, I bumped into The Nose, who said she would like to visit my London house the following day. Since the Brussels trip, I’d harbored a suspicion that she would attempt to back out of our deal, having met her asking price for her multi-X painting, and, as it turned out, my own nose knew. Before her planned visit to my house, I was visited by the myriad go-between-ers in the Brussels deal, who shouted and threatened to sue. There wouldn’t necessarily have been a viable case, of course: as so often happens in the art world, we’d made a verbal agreement, but had drawn up no contract.

Our Belgian friend was, it seemed, suffering acutely from an all too familiar syndrome in today’s art world: greed. My doorbell never rang on that Saturday she’d planned to come by. I was stood up at the altar of art.

There is a moment that has stayed with me from that ill-fated trip to Brussels. At one point on the journey, my collector friend looked over my shoulder at the bottom line of a spreadsheet for an exhibition I was working on, and said, recalling a horse he’d once bet on, “Keep Hope Alive.”

X-Rated: On the Hunt for a Guyton, Wary of the Self-Gazump


I was recently booked on a same-day, round-trip Eurostar train to Paris to view two works on behalf of clients: a Wade Guyton, whom I exhibited in 1997 (unfortunately this was before he owned an inkjet printer) and Christopher Wool, whose work I completely missed the boat on (worse still, I put such thoughts in writing in 2006, predicting doom and gloom for his career and his market). A friend had kindly volunteered to show me the Wade work as he was not himself interested at any level, having collected Cy Twombly and Agnes Martin at more sensible prices.

When I initially showed Wade, from what I remember (I can’t find the little slides we once used to document these things), he did an installation that involved office supplies from Staples, which might have even ended up on my desk.

I’ve heard people ask, “Why the Xs and ‘flaming Us’ in Guyton paintings?” I’d venture that the artist doesn’t have an altogether convincing explanation himself, other than that they nicely fill out canvases while simulating icons of one sort or another. Okay, I am more joker than cynic, and I’ve been seduced myself, and believe strongly in the longevity of his art. But not to this extent, at these prices.

The market has accorded Guyton near royal status in recent years. Wades are flying out faster than Oscar’s tacos. Over the past two years his Xs, Us and monochromes have been climbing, in rapid succession, from $800,000 and $900,000 to $1 million and well beyond. Just when you thought it couldn’t get kookier, rumors of $2 million, then demands of $2.5 million, began circulating. Now, brace yourself: only last week, someone offered a “flaming U” at the whopping price of $5 million. That’s a market-quake registering 12 on the Richter scale.

But it’s not as simple as that. Let me digress. You may be familiar with the phrase “to gazump,” which is when someone makes a higher offer for a house after a bid has already been accepted, thus acquiring the property from beneath the nose of the original high bidder.

Unbelievably, there is now a whole other kind of game afoot in art, in which all that is needed to cause a seller to change his mind and renege on a deal is the mere acceptance of his offering price. The argument of the seller, to himself and/or his advisors, is that surely his masterpiece must be worth more. It’s the new self-gazump, and pure art-world onanism.

Back to the Wade story: en route to the St Pancras rail station in London, I received a phone call before 7 a.m. That’s rarely a good thing, but I had an especially bad feeling since I’d been Guyton-gazumped over and over this summer. Just as I suspected: the painting (and, unsurprisingly, the “friend” of the friend showing it) would perhaps not be in Paris at our previously prescribed time after all.

Whenever something is too good to be true it usually is, as was the case with the multi-X that I was to view with a price tag of $1.3 million (can you believe that?). This is art buying reduced to bagging evasive wild game: completely without joy. I went to check out of the train and head back home.

My taxi ride back was with a colorful and full-of-anecdotes driver, a fitting way to fill the bleak space after such a thwarted and aborted crack-of-dawn mission. When he was potless (translation: penniless), he said, he and his wife scrambled a fiver (a £5 note) and bet it all on a horse, only to lose. They then found out, exactly a year later to the day, that the very same horse won a different race. And I thought I had all the luck! That reminded me that the only thing worse than being behind the times is being too far ahead of them. Must happen to psychics all the time.

(Oh: the cab driver also said he was psychic. When he relayed the racing story to his skeptical friends they goaded him to do it again, and overnight he dreamt of a jumbo jet with “NZ” on the tail wing. So his friends found the only U.K. horse running in New Zealand that morning. And they won!)

Then the inevitable art conversation ensued (which in London taxis is like talking politics to a Middle Easterner), from Tate’s (annoyingly) still-controversial 1976 decision to buy a Carl Andre brick sculpture, to the Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and cadavers of Hirst, we covered all the inevitable and tedious art bases. Then, out of the blue, he blurted out something totally unusual about an Andy Warhol piss painting.

That last reference was a bit obscure, even for a London taxi driver in his early 70s, and I happen to have one of those Warhol piss paintings hanging in my bedroom, so it felt like a sign of some sort.

Will my client ever get a Guyton? I was afraid to ask the soothsaying taxi driver for a tipoff. I thought it better to avoid messing with fate or stumbling into a self-fulfilling prophecy of who-knows-what significance. As for whom the bell tolls, looks like it will be for thee before I can get my hands on one of those paintings.

I may as well stamp my application for a Wade with a big X. And to think how highly I had hoped for 80 inches on the long dimension, which I know sounds like a Groucho Marx line. But wait! An art premonition of my own from above! Tread carefully: we are approaching a highly dangerous period! In November 2013, Christie’s will offer a Wade Guyton “flaming U” painting with an estimate of $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

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"Die Kunstwelt ist wie eine Mafia, es gibt ein ungeschriebenes Gesetz des Stillschweigens", sagt Kenny Schachter. Auf seinem Monopol-Blog bringt der britische Kunsthändler Licht ins Dunkle und macht die Mechanismen des Marktes transparent. In englischer Sprache