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The sky is falling on the art market, or is it?

Kenny Schachter on the auctions in New York

by Kenny Schachter  |  17.11.2015
The sky is falling on the art market, or is it?
In the event of a default. Photo: © Kenny Schachter
In last week’s New York auctions of Impressionist and Contemporary art, $2.3bn was transacted in two weeks and though less than the last spate in May ($2.7bn, a record high), nevertheless it was above the $2.1bn presale estimate. Any diminution in value this season compared with May is more indicative of the material coupled with inflated expectations than the overall market. Christie’s continues to beat Sotheby’s in contemporary except that it has gotten a little too cocky (greedy) this time around, so the margin is shrinking—or the perception of the gap—though not as precipitously as Sotheby’s stock price, and Phillips remains misguided. There you have it in a nutshell.

Post-sales, the press chimed in like Chicken Little that the sky was falling as the numbers came up short but I can remember when a $170m Amedeo Modigliani nude and $70.5m Cy Twombly scribble would be cause for celebration (both respective highs). Not to mention countless additional records dropping like flies in a Hirst vitrine. We are in a mature, healthy and broad market in rather rude health, thank you very much. Here’s how it panned out.

Though I’ve been a tad cynical when it comes to auction reporting nowadays, I see no reason to dwell on negatives; the market has been flayed enough, so I’ve covered highlights that stood out to me. To come clean, as a consequence of 25 years in the art business (not always profitably), mostly as a dealer-to-dealer dealer (if you can get your arms around that), I have bought, sold and own(ed) many works by the artists referred to herein so take all I type with grains of salt.

A few asides before I jump in. The Bank of America has proffered a $200m line of credit to Steve Wynn at the crazy low rate of 1% collateralised exclusively by 59 works, from Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol to Sylvester Stallone, and more than one. Who’s running that department for Bank of America? Even scarier, fostering newbies to jump in and/or the jaded to ramp it up, there’s a phenomenon afoot to easy-finance your next art purchase. Some of these vehicles will lend you next day cash to satiate your art obsessive needs but sound more like drug delivery services—do we really want or need no-strings money funding for ever more impulsive art buys? It has the hallmarks of a subprime blowout if not kept in check. Let’s hope that the market has been revealed to have plateaued and dropped a bit and will introduce a degree of temperance and rationality into things. In the meantime, can you sign me up for $250m?

Eleven years in London shying away from dealing directly with artists, I made a concerted effort to reacquaint myself with the makers, meeting with Spencer Finch, Joe Bradley, Walter Robinson, Vito Acconci, Devon Dikeou, and dragged my kids to Agathe Snow’s show and artist dinner (The Journal Gallery, Brooklyn), where I proceeded to get into an argument with the collector Michael Hort; though feeling haggard and removed these days, that kind of invigorating repartee made me come to life. I forgot how vast the schism is between art and the market; we overlook the simple act of looking and reflecting. In one of the art-stuffed apartments New York is drenched in, I saw the most riveting, process-y Christopher Wool text painting that read: “The harder you look the harder you look”. There is something to be said for that.

Phillips

For better or worse, small houses such as Phillips (and Bonhams) will be slotted as just that: marginal players in a brand-fixated world where nothing will crack the hegemony of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Phillips could have been a contender but they never cease to impress with how they get it wrong—throwing good money after bad art. Some clients might help too. I continually find it dumbfounding; maybe a company eye doctor would help. Oh, the Phillips’ auctioneer— new hire Hugues Joffre—was hypnotically wooden, enticing sleep rather than the urge to splurge; you never fully appreciate the role of the auctioneer till you are faced with a dull one.

There was the Le Corbusier canvas guaranteed at $4m with an estimate of $4m-$6m that sold at the guarantee, $4.6m including fees. I found it second rate, added to the fact that the architect-designer was a well-known fascist and anti-Semite (who wrote letters to his mum extolling Hitler), which couldn’t have contributed to stirring much excitement in New York. Corbusier has had 3,295 works at auction since 1985 (according to Artnet).

Giorgio de Chirico, Gladiateurs au Repos (1928-29)
Another guaranteed lot, the Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Gladiateurs au Repos that made $4m also estimated at $4m-$6m, was like the backdrop for a male sauna or a Greek diner in Queens (please take no offence), the work verged on comical. Thus far, 3,882 de Chirico’s have surfaced at auction. Now, back to being nice.

Wade Guyton’s (b. 1972) seventh most expensive painting at auction, a computer print on painted linen of a flame and suspended Us sold fairly at Philips for $2.4m (est $2m-$3m) against a similar work that sold at Christie’s last year for $3.5m (est $2.5m-$3.5m). Guyton’s record is for a larger painting from the same series at $6m (est $3.5m-$4.5m) at Sotheby’s New York in May of 2014, a stunning achievement for an Epson print. Since 2008 ($72,205, est $11,869-$15,825 at Christies in London), 118 Guytons have sold publicly.

I think there is resistance to the ultra-high (maybe that’s what the enigmatic U stands for) prices for the relatively young artist, coupled with the perceived ease of reproducing the works (press send). Guyton famously posted an image of a roomful of identical works to the piece Christie’s was selling last May in protest at unbridled speculation in recently made art. In my estimation, Guyton is an exceptional artist progressing beyond the silkscreen with his decorative yet formally austere fusions of computer-generated assemblage. In dialogue with a Malevich show at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel (until 10 January 2016), Guyton is exhibiting a notable series of site-specific paintings created in proportion to the scale of the exhibition walls.

Absurdly, Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), whose works I exhibited previously (like Guyton in 1997, before he had a printer), holds an auction record of only $194,500 (est $100,000-$150,000), from a Sotheby’s day sale in 2012. In the Phillips day sale last week Heilmann made $185,000 (est $120,000-$180,000). Amongst many great exhibitions on view in the city, Carroll Dunham at Barbara Gladstone and Heilmann at 303 struck me as locomotive war horses chugging through passing whims and fashions, incrementally moving the goalposts of painting all along.

Seven of Carol Bove’s (b. 1971) top ten prices are for accumulations of peacock feathers. Good for her, less so for the hapless birds—the record for a feathers of a bird is $329,000 (est $150,000-$200,000) at Sotheby’s New York in November of 2013; coming in at number nine is Innerspace Bullshit from 2007, which just sold at Phillips's day sale for $106,250 (est $20,000-$30,000). The piece was made up of: “14 books, comic book, letter, bronze sculpture, Marfa rock, ocean ephemera, mirror and pamphlet on wood and metal shelves.” Shopping cart art; not sure I get it but it looks like something. She has had 29 works for sale since 2007. Although I was her lawyer in my past life (and hers), I have neither owned nor exhibited her art.

Math Bass’s (b. 1981) ascendancy continues. Of the four works offered at auction since 2015, prices have leapt from $17,500 (est $8,000-$12,000) at Christie’s in March of this year in New York, to $68,750 at Phillips in New York in September (est $15,000-$20,000) and now $81,250 at Phillips (est. $25,000 to $35,000), one of its limited number of successes. I was informed of a telltale story involving another painting at Sotheby’s (est. $15,000 to $20,000) that was withdrawn at the last minute (though incorrectly recorded as bought-in on the internet). When an artist’s prices begin their ascent, which even today can be faster than abrupt, there is a tendency for other works to magically fly off the walls and into auctions as if of their own devices. The seller happened to be a friend of the artist who got called out for a lack of loyalty in attempting to sell the painting. The wrath of the artist resulted in the removal of the work with a hefty 25% penalty—a clause of every auction contract.

Christie’s

Christie’s needs to check its rear view mirror; the auction tides can change swiftly, just not in favour of Phillips. If anything can fell the market it’s the avarice of auction houses feeding the unrealistic expectations of sellers. The cover lot for the evening sale, Andy Warhol’s Four Marilyns from 1962, guaranteed at $44m, was just such a case: sold only two years ago, also as the cover lot of a Phillips sale at $38.2m, then sold again a short eight moths later. The problem— highlighted in a New York Times piece before the sale (good timing)—is that the painting has been flipped more than a Lucien Smith. When it was re-resold last week it made $36m (est $40m-$60m), probably on a house guarantee. That translates into an $8m haircut for the new owner. The auction houses should unite, rent Grand Central Station, and launch an everything-must go art fest. I’m sure Dan Loeb would be keen.

Warhol (29,215 pieces at auction to date) had 56 canvases up for sale in the week, safe to say more than any other artist; if only he could have lived to experience his transformation into fully-fledged currency, he’d have been tickled. To think there was talk of a softening in Warhol’s market; this was only due to the unabashed prostituting of a handful of pieces too publicly and repetitively. The New York Times story emphasised the point. Taking into account 13 unsold lots for a buy-in rate just above 23%, $138m is still impressive. That’s a lot of dollar signs for an artist in a single week of sales. Warhol, though having died with a lifetime record under $400,000, never fully realized his dream of being a market force but he’s that and more: a barometer of art bucks.

Louise Bourgeois’ Spider (1997)
Estimated at $25m to $35m, Louise Bourgeois’ (1911-2010) Spider, her 801st work appearing at auction, from an edition of six with one artist's proof, one unique bronze variant, plus one unique sculpture in steel (wow, do the math, there’s nine of them) sold for $28.2m. Her previous record was $10.7m for the “unique” bronze version at Christie’s New York in 2011 (est $4m-$6m). Ka-ching. Stick that in your pipe Georg Baselitz who believes female artists, in value and merit, are not on par with men. Idiocy knows no bounds.

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941), with an auction record of nearly $10m for the waxwork Henry Moore Bound to Fail from 1967 (est $2m-$3m in Christie’s New York in 2001) and a widely-announced and highly-anticipated upcoming MoMA show, made his second-highest price at $4.2m (est. $2.5m-$3.5m) for a unique (finally) bronze conglomeration of attached cast hands from 1997 that resembled a devotional object from a Modernist church. I expect to see his auction record double in the coming years; he’s had 996 works at auction, look for many more to follow.

Joe Bradley (b. 1975) set a record of $3m (est $1.5m-$2m) leapfrogging his previous one of $1.5m, ahead of his first show with starship Gagosian, probably this upcoming spring. The scalpels will be at the ready when he unveils his inaugural show with the gallery, which I am certain will be a success. Having staged an exhibition of Bradley's works in the Vito Acconci-designed space I ran for two years in the West Village from 2002 to 2004, I’ve followed the evolution of his paintings and drawings since. The Gogo show will not disappoint—the latest paintings push along his abiding uglification of pictorial taste and convention in confounding, unexpected directions. He’s had 52 works at auction since 2010 and I consider him one of the best painter’s painters painting.

Sotheby’s

Art dealing is not entirely the hip, carefree lifestyle it’s painted as being. The ex-Sotheby’s private dealing friend seated next to me at the evening sale was so proactive my head was spinning. He was both buying and selling at a dizzying pace and things didn’t go to plan, far from it. At its best (and worst) you never know how the auction pendulum will swing; it can go well but just as quickly hit you and your advisor in the face. Stay with me, the client bought a work for over $10m (people get whiplash craning heads every time bids go up in $1m increments), while the advisor explained that other buyers were “stupid for not going higher” and that he saved his collector money by buying so shrewdly. “You got yourself a great painting” he consoled the client, “there’s not going to be another like it”. Then another work they were selling did terribly in comparison to a similar piece that sold substantially higher at Christie’s the night before. “Why didn’t you withdraw it before it bombed?” the collector snarled. Buyer's and seller's remorse between bids—what a life.

Some people are crushed by disappointment, while Mike Kelley (1954-2012) seems to have been overwhelmed by the scale of his professional success, striving for failure throughout his career. Two of his Memory Ware works made successive auction records in a day. In light of his unwieldy, psychologically probing provocations and dirty, discarded, forlorn and forgotten stuffed animals, this series of approximately 63 is his most user-friendly. 521 pieces have come up for sale in total.

The first on offer last week sold during Christie’s day sale for $2.85m (est $1m-$1.5m), a record eclipsed later that day at Sotheby’s evening sale—a shrewder choice to go with the more glamorous evening event—when another achieved $3m (est $1.5m-$2m). The pieces are a conglomeration of doodads and whatnots from junk shops and flea markets that hark back to a nostalgia-infused time of innocence when it didn’t take much to amuse the masses. Kelley had a warped inner sense that transmuted into a public/private world capturing an uneasy, desperate humour.

Rudolf Stingel (b. 1956), 270 works sold, just off the back of a double record-breaking week (like Kelley), continued his snowballing prices. As an institutionally embraced artist for decades, Stingel is still outsold by artists a generation or two younger, such as Mark Grotjahn and Wade Guyton. Curiously, Stingel has an exhibition at Sadie Coles in London (until 18 December) at two of her three London venues, including her stunning new space, caddy corner to the equally striking and central Gagosian and Phillips spaces.

The all-animal realistic paintings (birds, a bunny, fox and porcupine among others) are from a calendar from Stingel’s hometown of Merano, Italy, and were aggressively priced at $2.5m for the small size and $4m for the larger one. But as all sold in advance, perhaps it wasn’t grand enough. Stingel’s silver wallpaper painting from 2005 made $3.5m (est $800,000-$1.2m), the third-highest price for his work—his record stands at $4.7m, a price achieved twice in as many days last May at both Christie’s and Phillips. Look for a record in May 2016 if someone procures a good enough example.

While everyone was stargazing (better than at Jeff Koons’s blue balls) they were missing the supporting cast—the unsexy day sales, a world unto themselves. These intermediate sales are the meat and potatoes marker for taking the temperature of the market where the houses increasingly look for profits out of the glare of buying market share. Sotheby’s made their best result since 2008 at $98m (vs. Christie’s $85.7m). Boom.

Petra Cortright (b. 1986): I shouldn’t but I do, the saccharine Sweet & Low silliness of these aesthetic, un-conceptual computer-generated landscapes on aluminum that when exuberantly coloured get me every time. And apparently, I’m not the only one. Shy of 30, some would say a remnant from the short-lived flip-flop era of instant profit-taking at the emerging side of the market, has had 17 pieces to market, all but one sold between 2013 and 2014. Her record is $43,750 (est $8,000-$12,000) at Sotheby’s New York day sale, November 2014. This time it was $40,000 (est $25,000-$35,000) at Sotheby’s day sale a very strong result in light of the decimation of the markets of a lot of her peers.

The works of Aaron Garber-Maikovska (b. 1978) are mostly scrawled abstractions in ink on archival board, mounted on aluminum, typically black and white or in a seemingly random smashup of incongruous colours. They come standard sized at 95 x 47 x 2 inches and five works have come to auction beginning in 2014. The first three fetched around $35,000, and the last two, $87,500 at Phillips and two days later $97,500 at Sotheby’s. At these lofty levels, look for more to follow. Lots.

Next

Auctions are about tallying figures: in that vein, I walked 112,995 steps over the course of the week, went to 11 restaurants and took nine taxis, I saved by walking—better exercise than gym according to new studies. But art’s not (solely) a numbers game, that's why many got involved because we don’t do maths, just Math Bass. Sales are less feel-good (gossipy) affairs than fairs, rather stress-filled days with billions riding on a two-week whirlwind. Instead of bemoaning the low end of high expectations, we should rejoice our good fortune. May 2016 may not make an overall record, but mark my words, it will still be huge.

During the week I could barely process outside events, experiencing art-tunnel vision bordering on myopia. But with all due respect, I am acutely aware we live in precarious and perilous times and although the art market is superficial in a wider context, art is not, far from it. Did you hear that art in hospitals has been clinically proven to have a medicinal impact on prolonging life, contributing to shorter hospital stays and requiring patients to take fewer medications? Underlying the howls and hoopla surrounding the auctions, art is an integral component of humanity few of us could bare to do without.

• All sale prices include buyers' premium but estimates do not.

• Kenny Schachter is an art dealer, curator and writer based in London

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