Determining Long-Term Value
Scott Reyburn provided a textbook example of this progression of thought in the Sunday New York Times, in an interesting article about whether the red-hot economic theory (just translated into English) by the French rock-star-economist Thomas Piketty can be applied to art:
In general, people have good reason to expect high auction prices to correlate with art historical importance. The highest prices paid for artwork at auction or known private sales are indeed for works by artists generally accepted in the canon (even if each of the works themselves are only questionably among their best).As during the so-called Belle Époque, certain living artists, whose longevity is still unproven, find they have a cult following. Christopher Wool (born 1955) is the high priest of American painting at the moment, particularly after the record $26.5 million paid for his 1988 work “Apocalypse Now” at the $1.3-billion series of contemporary art auctions in New York in November. Private museums, packed with works by Mr. Wool, Wade Guyton, Mark Grotjahn and other must-have names, are sprouting up across the world.“People are spending millions on works by artists who have questionable long-term value,” [Ivor Braka, a London dealer who has been buying and selling high-value art since 1978] said.“Do they have taste?” he added. “I don’t know. That’s capitalism. You can spend money on what you want.”Back in 1882, the British businessman-cum-art speculator Thomas Holloway, using the best art advice that money could buy, splurged £6,615 on “The Babylonian Marriage Market” by Edwin Long, an auction record at the time for any living English artist. The painter and the painting are now forgotten.
Consider the list of the 20 publicly known (or estimated) most expensive paintings ever sold :
$269 ($259) Paul Cézanne, "The Card Players," 1892/93 [April 1, 2011]
$162 ($140) Jackson Pollock, "No. 5, 1948," 1948 [November 2, 2006]
$159 ($137) Willem de Kooning, "Woman III," 1953 [November 18, 2006]
$155 ($155) Pablo Picasso, "Le Rêve," 1932 [March 26, 2013]
$155 ($135) Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," 1907 [June 18, 2006]
$149 ($82) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," 1890 [May 15, 1990]
$142 ($142) Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969 [November 12, 2013]
$141 ($78) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Bal du moulin de la Galette," 1876 [May 17, 1990]
$129 ($104) Pablo Picasso, "Garçon à la pipe," 1905 [May 4, 2004]
$122 ($119) Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895 [May 2, 2012]
$118 ($110) Jasper Johns, "Flag," 1954 [March 1, 2010]
$114 ($106) Pablo Picasso, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," 1932 [May 4, 2010]
$111 ($58*) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Joseph Roulin," 1889 [August 1, 1989]
$110 ($95) Pablo Picasso, "Dora Maar au Chat," 1941 [May 3, 2006]
$109 ($53) Vincent van Gogh, "Irises," 1889 [November 11, 1987]
$108 ($100) Andy Warhol, "Eight Elvises," 1963 [October 1, 2008]
$105 ($105) Barnett Newman, "Anna's Light," 1968 [October 4, 2013]
$105 ($105) Andy Warhol, "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)," 1963 [November 13, 2013]
$102 ($87) Gustav Klimt, "Adele Bloch-Bauer II," 1912 [November 2, 2006]
$102 ($71) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe," 1889 [November 19, 1998]
First dollar amounts [in millions, and rounded for space] are adjusted for inflation to show comparable expectations of "importance" via sale price. Prices in parenthesis were prices (or generally accepted estimates) on day of sale. Dates at end were dates of sale, for reference in how long the work had been around for the public/art world to weigh in on its importance.
*plus exchange of works
Mind you, the shortest length of time between the creation of one of these works and their record sales price was 44 years (for the Francis Bacon), and some of them had exchanged hands several times before they reached these peaks in prices. But again, if you follow such reports, it's logical that you would expect high auction prices to correspond to art historical importance (and long-term value).
In the flippant auction atmosphere of contemporary art today, the amounts of money stirring questions of art historical importance are pennies compared to the record prices, so perhaps it is all relative. But it's still millions of dollars, and so the questions of "long-term value" do linger.
Through a series of conversations lately, I've been trying to reconcile my working assumptions about what makes art "historically important" with the question of determining "long-term value." Perhaps sharing those thoughts and conversations here can help collectors avoid any Edwin-Long-type "mistakes" (which I put in quotes because to me it's not a mistake if you go to your grave truly loving the artwork, but your heirs may disagree...). If nothing else, perhaps it can open up a healthy debate as to whether the question of "long-term value" makes sense within the context of contemporary art auction prices. Here goes:
My long-standing theory has been that what makes any artwork truly "important" is the influence it has on other artists. If other artists look to it for its ideas, aesthetic achievement, or innovation--in short, if it opens up opportunities for other artists in solving problems within their own practice--then on the most fundamental level it's "historically important" to my mind. This can take years to happen (as in the case of the now widely influential Philip Guston, who was considerably less so until a generation of younger artists started turning to him for answers about 20 years ago), but I do believe this is a key to whether or not something contemporary will become art historically important.
This quality, though, of opening up opportunities for other artists, can take several forms. It can be something quite technical, such as the "invention" (or rediscovery, if you will) of linear perspective. It can be a liberating break with traditional notions of what "art" is supposed to look like or be made from. It can be an achievement in creating something so beautiful that other artists simply marvel at the fact that it now exists.
What unites all these forms of influence, to my mind, though, is innovation and uniqueness. It's something new, something that didn't exist before this work was created that captures the imagination of other artists and propels a work into that category of "important." If an artwork isn't innovative or unique in some way, if there's not something new in it that other artist can learn from, something that they don't already know from seeing some already accessible work, the more recent work's odds of becoming influential seem quite diminished. Again, other artists may turn to a work that offers nothing seemingly innovative, simply because it's so damn well done, but it's that "thing" that makes it so damn well done that I would argue is also something that's, in its own way, new and unique in the world. That "thing" that makes other artists wonder How did they do that? and turn to it frequently for answers. If you can find damn well done works on every corner, why would you seek out the one perhaps half a world away?
And so, I return to the question at hand: How can you avoid shelling out millions at auction for the next Edwin Long? One answer I come up with is to avoid artwork that is in no way innovative. Of course, this requires a solid grasp of art history, which is time consuming or requires advice you can trust. Moreover, as the contemporary art market goes increasingly global, a "solid grasp" is more and more all-but-impossible for any given individual. And so, perhaps a better, more reliable/actionable answer is: Seek out the work that looks like nothing you've ever seen before (that can include something that's just so damn well done, you can't get it out of your mind). None of which will guarantee it's unique in the world (although it's easy enough to ask your dealer or artist friends if they know of other work like it), but your long-term odds are much higher with such art than they are with work that brings nothing new to the table for other artists to get excited about.