L.A. Wildcatters, a Davos Doomsayer, the London Auctions, and the Future of the Art Market

Simcho Che
Simcho Che

I am convinced that the art market is in an extended bull run the likes of which have never been seen before. Sure, nothing goes up forever, but we are experiencing fundamentals fostering the fever to buy more art at ever escalating prices. A qualified investor can bag interest rates of less than 1 percent for a 10-year fixed mortgage; oil has plummeted, squeezing the industry but fueling other businesses like automotive and aerospace; and as the euro loses ground against the dollar, it only ramps up the U.S.’s spending power.

This currency scenario could stand as an analogy for the art world, where we can experience pockets of recession in individual artists’ prices as others rise in a zero-sum knee-jerk reaction. Take, for example, Leipzig. Does anyone remember Leipzig? That school of up-to-the-minute painters selling for loads of money with accompanying waiting lists? It now accounts for no more than a string of buy-ins at an auction near you.  ... weiterlesen

Of Spec-u-lectors and Drug-Dealing Art Advisers: At the New York Auctions

An elevator painted like the 1963 portrait 'Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz)' by US artist Andy Warhol during a preview of a contemporary art auction at Sotheby's in New York (photo: dpa)
An elevator painted like the 1963 portrait 'Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz)' by US artist Andy Warhol during a preview of a contemporary art auction at Sotheby's in New York (photo: dpa)

In The Graduate, the hapless protagonist is given career advice in a single word: Plastics. Today, that word would be art. 

Just as in the ’60s there appeared to be a great future in plastics, there now seems to be no limit to the highflying market for modern and contemporary art. Everyone from your interior decorator to your wedding planner to your tennis partner to your drug dealer considers him or herself an art adviser. With outposts around the world, the auction houses and galleries like Gagosian have made the business a 24/7 one. Everywhere you look, from cruise ships to strip malls, the stuff is being made and sold.   ... weiterlesen

Frieze London: Oktoberfest in a Cutthroat Art World

Photo: Courtesy Frieze London
Photo: Courtesy Frieze London

It must have been an omen of sorts. When I arrived at the extravagant new London headquarters of Phillips auction house last week to preview the house’s inaugural sale there, I was greeted by the slapstick sight of a smartly dressed businessman chasing down the street the banknote with which he’d intended to pay his cab driver. It was one of those typically blustery London days, and a gust of wind had picked up the money, sailing it off into the air and sending the businessman into a manic, comical dance. Try as he might, he couldn’t lasso the errant bill.

This was the start to my Frieze week and, in fact, it’s not a bad metaphor for today’s art market: a mad dash after short-term profits.  From the aisles of the Frieze Art Fair to the auction floor, the theme of London’s annual art Oktoberfest was zero-sum art-o-nomics. Sigmar Polke’s market rose while Gerhard Richter’s appeared to stay on its plateau. Frieze Masters continue to garner rave reviews, while its older sibling, Frieze London, continued to disappoint.

But let’s start with Phillips. If the Marx Brothers sold art they would be known as the Phillips Brothers—more farce than finance. The house’s airy, ample new premises, unequivocally the best in London, weren’t enough to lift its overall performance to the level of basic professionalism. Before the sale even began, Phillips shot itself in the foot by staging a non-selling exhibition smack in the middle of the salesroom. This folly only served to drive home the fact that Phillips will in all probability never be able to secure the kind of A-list works so prominently displayed but so conspicuously not on offer: prime pieces by Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, and even Anthony Caro, not exactly the most difficult to procure. What an auspicious start—and it only got worse.

When are four Marilyns less than none? When it’s the title of the Andy Warhol cover lot that failed to elicit a single bid (not even from the Mugrabis), no revelation as it was even worse in person than it appeared in the catalogue. And when a Gerhard Richter came up, not a single paddle raised in the room. Call for help? No use, I couldn’t even get a phone signal in the gleaming basement salesroom, and I wasn’t the only one struggling for a lifeline. Then it got worse, still.

I got a call from Deep Pockets, my art-world version of Watergate’s Deep Throat, a plugged-in market maker who serves as my go-to source for the juiciest behind-the-scenes tidbits. I was informed that at least half the phone banks, where Phillips’s specialists take bids from clients, were actually not functioning over the course of the evening sale and the specialists were engaged in nothing more than play-acting.

Phillips’ bloodbath, which extended from night into day (sale), had many of today’s hot, young market highfliers appearing to suffer from premature aging disease, including (very) recently made works by David Ostrowski, Kour Pour, Christian Rosa, Lucien Smith, and Mark Flood. (Speaking of Rosa, I can’t wait to see his next Jay Jopling show after he declared in no uncertain terms to Deep Pockets, not once but twice, that it will be ten times better than David Hammons’s present outing at the gallery. Good luck!)

Back at Christie’s and Sotheby’s it all began to feel like auction season again rather than an indiscriminate slaughterhouse. Sigmar Polke was always punching above his weight talent-wise, but from a lower weight class than Richter. After the latest spate of sales Polke was firmly established as the (historic and market) heavyweight he’s always been, reaching in excess of $8 million for a work from the guaranteed Essl collection, his second highest at auction. In the process, Richter appeared to take a little drubbing at the hand of Polke’s newfound pricing prowess. Don’t get me wrong, Richter is still up about 500 percent in not much more than 5 years, but in the art world’s micro-short attention span, yesterday’s records are today’s amnesia. In any event, look for Christie’s November sale in New York to equal or surpass their greatest auction result ever, the $745 million achieved last May.

On to the fairgrounds, Frieze London (see a slideshow here), the original event that’s been under the bigtop in Regent’s Park annually since 2003, left a soggy and bland taste this year, as though it had outgrown its defining edginess and now has the shtick of any other ordinary commercial expo. A highlight was one of the random, non-market driven projects thrown into the mix in a grasp at creative credibility. Jonathan Berger reassembled fragments from Andy Kaufman’s personal life and career. Inside the standalone booth, a woman jumped up to greet me like a longtime friend to speak about (the other) Andy, all part of the performance. If only some of the participants in the fair would behave in such fashion, the art world would be a kinder, gentler place.

Across the park, Frieze Masters, in its second year, presented a much fresher array of artworks across a wider historical divide. This event was characterized by a lack of pretense (if that’s possible in art today) and, above all else, was a lot easier on the eyes. There was a Gauguin wood carving that once stood sentry outside the artist’s Tahitian home, on offer at London’s Lefevre Fine Art for $25 million, a mere pittance compared to a piece of Wool. There were Judd stacks from $5.5 million to $6.5 million at David Zwirner and Paula Cooper; and who would rather be anywhere else than surrounded by the Philip Gustons at David McKee?

Whenever an Old Master booth sandwiched between the more prevalent classic contemporary galleries had an actual masterpiece on hand (or famous names associated with masterworks), like the £38 million Rembrandt at Otto Nauman or Peter Paul Rubens, they were distinguished by enormous gold scripted signage. You could be forgiven for thinking these were single-artist shows rather than single marginal examples of both in what amounted to attempts to smack some awareness into the heads of the typically shortsighted contemporary art tourist.

But outside the circus tents the talk was all about the market, and the accusations continued to fly, seemingly more bombastic, aggressive, and snide than ever before, pitting flippers against flippers, dealers against collectors (and vice-versa), and lawyers laughing all the way to Christie’s, because who’d put their money in a bank at zero-percent interest? Like Ronald P. and Larry G., too often today’s pal is tomorrow’s plaintiff in an art world ever more resembling a cage fight than the decorous, intergenerational, relationship-oriented business of the past. Then again, even legendary dealers like Joseph Duveen and Ernst Beyeler were known to have thrown down the gloves chasing a deal, straddling both buy and sell sides—conflict, what conflict? The song remains the same.

I can even recall when, if you wanted to buy an unproven work of art for behind the couch or over the bed, you didn’t have to sign over your first born or multiple clauses surrendering your resale right in perpetuity should you ever, god forbid, change your mind. A well-known Parisian purveyor of younger art goes on the attack confronting her clients if they so much as think about selling. She appears to get a premonition from the ether, and then you get the nastiest of letters complaining about your lack of ethics and impending blacklisting from the gallery.

But rather than art buyers being concerned with restrictive clauses in gallery invoices, i.e. providing dealers rights of first refusal and buyer proscriptions against auctioning, collectors of contemporary should be up in arms that there aren’t warnings about what will happen if they can’t resell. Business cycles for some contemporary artists nowadays seem to span days rather than quarters.

Oh, and did you hear the one about the devilishly demeaning dealer better suited to work as an S&M dominator (it’s a he) who just might reside in a Scandinavian country? A collector passed his email on to me:

Dealer: “I am afraid (your collection) presents itself without a sense of purpose and that we will not be able to make the collection a priority. In all fairness, I am an eager supporter of not wasting my time or the time of others, and having looked at the online presentation I find that the decisions you’ve made so far provide a context that is not the right one for these artists. It may be that the collection is not set up as an investment fund or to give it the appearance of a Philips auction catalogue, but it tells a fairly sad story of what is generally sold today and what will hopefully sell for more tomorrow. Best of luck with building whatever collection you want, but we will unfortunately be unable to contribute to that. All the best”

At least he signed off with a friendly salutation, but I thought the Studio 54 door policy days died with disco. When I posted this email on my Facebook, activist investor Dan Loeb weighed in: “What a shocker SHOCKER. Next thing you’ll tell me is that there’s gambling in Casablanca.” For me, it’s not the arrogance that’s shocking, but its depths.

Because art has truly hit the bigtime. Have you seen the start-up selling art like penny shares? The telephone pitch: “You mean you’re not invested in art yet?” Lately there have been Internet scams involving art deals so we surely must have arrived. I got screwed over by a double-dealing relative who’d asked for my help in selling a painting. Being around a marketable painting today is like being in front of a gram of coke in the ’70s, back when it was still a novelty, and an expensive one at that. As the classic-car universe rises in lockstep with art, so does the bad behavior, where rumor and innuendo amount to market fact. When you get a car cheaply after a lousy auction they say you bought it well. Sound familiar?

Everyone and their grandmother want in on the deals, and just as well. At present, with connoisseurship having apparently gone the way of the Dodo bird, it’s no longer critics, dealers, or committed collectors who serve as kingpins in cementing careers, rather it’s algorithm-driven black-box trading models and the Leo Factor, as in the latest acquisitions of Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse of celebrity cohorts. The sharp verdicts of the eye have given way to word of mouth.

Now it’s on to the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporarin (FIAC) in Paris. Fair fatigue? C’est la vie.

Won’t See You Tuesday… What if "If I Live" Dies?

Mark Grotjahn "Untitled (In and Out of the Darkness Face 43.01)", 2011, Courtesy Christie's
Mark Grotjahn "Untitled (In and Out of the Darkness Face 43.01)", 2011, Courtesy Christie's

The current resale market for contemporary art has the attention span of a teenager. To switch metaphors, it’s a nuclear hot potato. How many of today’s 25 hottest will be tomorrow’s stone coldest? It’s always in the back of my mind that the pretty young painting things of today can suddenly become progeroid, stricken by a premature aging ailment in their early market lifespans.

Which brings us to “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday.”

A year ago, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation raised $38.8 million for wildlife and the environment in a blockbuster auction called “The 11th Hour.” Christie’s  billed the sale as “the most important wildlife charity auction ever staged.” Organized by the actor and up-and-coming contemporary art specialist Loic Gouzer, “The 11th Hour” notched 13 world auction records for recently made art.

As we all by now know, on the heels of that breakout event, Christie’s gave the 33 year-old Mr. Gouzer (credit) carte blanche to assemble another contemporary evening sale, “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday…” to take place next Monday. It’s not for charity. Its title riffs on a line in a 1990 Richard Prince painting.  The sale was designed to convey angst and employs a promotional video with a skateboarder racing through Christie’s storage, but its effect has instead so far been farcical and slapstick—downright preposterous.

As we also know, Christie’s, in an act of market machismo, scheduled “If I Live” for the very evening on which the Phillips auction house had scheduled its one contemporary art evening sale of the week. Phillips, seeming strong-armed, has since rescheduled. Roll up your sleeves—welcome to the age of auction-house cage fighting.

More to the point of today’s art market, over 40 percent of the 36 lots in Mr. Gouzer’s sale carry guarantees, meaning that the auction house has assured a consignor—or has itself been assured by a third party—a sale at a predetermined price. (Guarantees are so rampant these days that auctions are beginning to resemble dog and pony shows where the juiciest lots are presold and paraded around the world as no more than a masquerade for propping up prices, headline filler and showbiz.) Three of those guarantees are in-house and 11 come from third parties. Given all of this, it’s tough to predict that “If I Live” will be a multi-car smashup.

Still, just as a thought exercise, let’s do a play-by-play of the evening as a hands-down disaster.

It’s near fisticuffs in the presale hustle for seats (for the hoi polloi, anyway) as Geneva-born Loic Gouzer, handsome as a movie villain, glad-hands the rich and famous, as well as the merely rich, as they file into the salesroom. The name-branders are out in force: Leo, Toby, Jay-Z, Kanye, Katy Perry (who recently declared her intent to collect) and Harry Styles (who hopes the art market will travel in one direction). As soon as the swells settle down, the roulette wheel is spun, the cards are dealt and the dice rolled: they come up snake eyes.

The room is as silent as John Cage’s 4’33”, the mood as sullen as a grey Richter monochrome. Would-be bidders squirm in their seats. Larry and Pharrell sit motionless on their paddles; from Leo, there is not a tiger’s whisker of movement. The only sound is of manicured nails tapping iPhones, relaying the shock and horror.

Sure, the guaranteed lots are being hammered down, but other than the chandelier phone bids hitting the prearranged targets, the air remains undisturbed. Up and down the aisles roll the tumbleweeds of fleeing audience members.

The display system next to the rostrum swivels, and here comes Christopher Wool’s 1990 32-inch ink-on-paper, CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER, carrying an estimate of $1 million–$1.5 million. And there it goes, sinking in deathly silence, eliciting not a single bid. Amazing to think that Christie’s auctioned Mr. Wool’s 1988 painting Apocalypse Now for a record $26.5 million only a fortnight ago. And what’s to become of If You (Can’t Take a Joke), estimated to sell for $20 million–$30 million at Christie’s second evening sale in a few days? (It seems I wasn’t wrong, after all, when I wrote in 2006 that Mr. Wool’s market was pulling the wool over our eyes!)

Now Joe Bradley’s Blonde is up. Made just three years ago, it sports the hefty estimate of $500,000–$700,000—after all, his aptly titled painting Muggles made a record $682,500 at that Leo DiCaprio charity fest. Both works resemble a pigsty of a preschool romp or the remnants of a teenagers’ all-nighter. Blondes are supposed to have more fun, but not this one—she ends up in the gutter, unsold.

  ... weiterlesen

If I die on Tuesday: Preview of the upcoming auction at Christie's New York


Tuesday 13 May 2014, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York: Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale at Christie's. Hottest ticket in town, if you can get one; the stand alone auction of the here and now—scheduled apart from Christies regular evening sale the following night—and unconventionally butting heads with Phillips the same night. The “If I die on Tuesday” sale is jam packed with ambitiously aggressive estimates (too much so?) that could administer shock therapy to the sector for better or worse, higher or (drastically) lower.

The catalogue just went live online and here is a rundown of some standout lots.

Richard Prince: the sale is top heavy with his work including the $7-9m nurse, mated with Rothko for illustrative purposes; the creativity of auction house staffers knows no bounds. The naked image of a greased prepubescent Brooke Shields, Spiritual America, in an addition of 10, is optimistically estimated at $3.5-4.5m. But the caption replacing the image in the catalogue: “Lot image Removed due to Explicit Content”, is more captivating than this rehashed edition of the original which was exhibited as unique.

Alex Israel, newcomer to the market, his first   ... weiterlesen

God giveth and taketh in same auction week breath

 Photo: Helly Nahmad
Photo: Helly Nahmad

Dragged my kids to Christie's tonight, have to break them in young, today’s market darlings aren’t much older. Though there was already a Lucien Smith market setback (backlash?) to the tune of about 20%.* God giveth and taketh in same auction week breath. Bacon didn’t fare as badly. I'm writing about the day sales for the New York Observer's GalleristNY.com, shh don't tell them I haven't been yet. But I did manage to pass my theory test today, first exam I've taken since bar exam in 1987, no joy there.

*If i was cynical, I'd say I was first to call L. Smith market demise. But I also happen to like it. I do.

Say it ain't so, Joe

Damien Hirst "Mickey" 2012, Estimate: £300,000 to £500,000, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.
Damien Hirst "Mickey" 2012, Estimate: £300,000 to £500,000, Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates, © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.

I love Christie's but spoken only how an auction house could. “Damien’s is an exciting and hugely significant addition to the rich artistic vein of Mickey depictions."

Watch out Yves!


BREAKING NEWS! Another Koons flash, in recognition of the $389,875,376.00 Jeff Koons’ balloon dog sculpture coming up for auction, they have seized the monumental occasion to change "Christie’s classic red" to orange.

Watch out Yves, looks like blue past sell-by date; yet another nail in brown's coffin. By the way, I got two of these thick and slick packages so it must be important (but Dan L. might not be amused).

Post-Visual Visual Art


Christie's are having “First Open New Media” online only sale, so is Saatchi, and at the same house before it, the Warhol estate also sold a chunk net only. Then of course there are the art auction websites Paddle 8; Artnet, Art Space, the Showroom and blah, blah. With the nature of art as asset the rave nowadays, with most of it being transacted with jpegs then stored, why not obliterate it altogether and just issue certificates or something to that effect? Post-Visual Visual Art.

Oranges and oranges

Ballon Dog vs 1973 Car, which do you prefer?
Ballon Dog vs 1973 Car, which do you prefer?

A comparison of oranges and oranges occurs when two items or groups of items are compared that cannot be practically told apart.

The idiom, comparing oranges and oranges, refers to the apparent similarities between items which are popularly thought to be incomparable or incommensurable, such as oranges and oranges. The idiom may also be used to indicate that a false analogy has been made between two items, such as where an orange is faulted for not being a good orange (or sculpture).  ... weiterlesen

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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