Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tuesday's Aside : Deaccession and Timing

Thanks to everyone who recommended topics for this summer's Tuesday's Aside posts, where I will do my damnedest to answer your questions. A few of the questions thus far fall under that category of how to break into the New York Gallery system when you don't live in New York, and while I think they could use a bit of updating, until I get around to that, I'll point you to these two posts I wrote a while back on the topic: "Foot in the Door, 101" and "One More Time, With Feeling (seriously)," the most useful information of which you'll find in the comments. Moving forward, in order to keep each Tuesday's thread on topic, I'll ask that you post any additional questions on the original thread (even though it will fall off the main page, I'll be emailed each time a new comment is added there and so, thus, will be monitoring continuously).
Tuesday's Aside: June 3, 2008

Christopher asked:
When do you think it's too soon to sell pieces on the secondary market? A number of pieces I have bought seem to have increased by a lot in terms of market value. I have never bought a piece with the intention of selling it, and certainly don't want to do anything that could potentially harm an artist's career, but collections and tastes do evolve. I've been thinking about this since it was announced that Howard Rachofsky will be selling his Koons in London for the next round of contemporary auctions. I had a chance to visit his home in Dallas a couple of years ago and say what you will about Koons - his piece 'floating' on the private lake outside the Richard Meier designed home was absolutely stunning. Rachofsky's collection and my collection are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but I think $20 million to Howard is relatively the same as $20k to me so it's sparked some interesting discussions locally.
Might as well start with the most romantic viewpoint here and move onward. Purists will argue that you should keep art you buy for life. That it should be sold, if not cherished by your heirs, only after you've bought the farm. Purists are rarely realists though, so, while I admire this point of view, I mention it only to get it out of the way here.

The dilemma in your question lies in the fact that at any given time what's best for the artist and what's best for the collector can be at odds. The realist in me says that when that's the case, you are perfectly justified in acting in your best interests and that includes timing (i.e., when it's best for you to sell the work). In other words, only you can say whether it's the right time to sell a piece or not. Generally speaking, that is. There remain some "best practices" IMO to deaccession.

First and foremost, I'd highly recommend at least approaching the gallery you bought the work from first, as opposed to taking the work to auction right away. Consigning the work to the gallery you bought it from will most help avoid any potential harm to the artist's career. There are a number of reasons for this:
  • No one has a better grasp on the subtleties of the artist's market. They'll know who's looking for the work, what price is fair (they want you to get as much from the resale as makes sense for the artist and their commission [which translates into as much for you as they can within that context]), and which collection will be best able to compensate for the damage (if news of the resale does any). For example, if the new collector is known to be buying the work in depth, then it will seem more reasonable to the artist's market that the work exchanged hands (i.e., less like folks were abandoning ship).
  • If the gallery can't find a buyer, no one has to know (as opposed to a public auction).
  • Rather that potentially send a chill through your relationship with that gallery (assuming you care), you'll strengthen that relationship (assuming they are happy to take the work on consignment).
  • You'll be giving the gallery a heads-up, and they can try to get out ahead of any potential harm to the artist's career.
  • If the gallery is among those truly dedicated to its artists (I know I'm gonna get flak for this, but I don't care), they'll share part of their commission with the artist.
But there are also somewhat contradictory ideas revealed in your comment, and sorting those out might help you decide what to do. You note that "collections and tastes do evolve," which is a perfectly valid reason for rehanging one's collection, but, if taken to its natural conclusion, suggests that regret over buying something at one point can be supplanted by later regret over reselling that piece. I've done this myself. I bought a fabulous piece early on that I later resold when I was trying to raise capital to start my gallery. Each time I do an inventory of my collection now, though, it tugs at my heart a bit. I truly wish I still had it now. Also, I've gone through phases of loving, then not so much, back to loving a piece again as it continues to reveal itself to me. In other words, tastes can continue to evolve, and pieces I bought early on always retain sentimental value for me.

The other idea that you note though is "A number of pieces I have bought seem to have increased by a lot in terms of market value." This suggests that your decision is being impacted by a sense that now is the time to resell if you're going to. I understand that impulse (artist's prices do peak and interest can wane after they do), but depending on why that artist's prices are increasing, they might continue to do so for quite some time. Here again, by approaching the gallery (for advice at least), you might save yourself some regret. If the gallery jumps at the chance to re-buy or consign the work, you might be able to safely assume the prices are still on their way up.

Either way, Christopher, I can't tell you how much I appreciate that you're concerned with the impact on the artist's career in doing this. It reflects very well on you. I do get the sense from your question, though, that you're asking also whether there are any indications that an artist's career is strong enough to weather work entering the secondary market with limited potential for harm. There is a spectrum of course, with perhaps the work being widely collected by top collectors and museums being at one end (i.e., there's no fear that the work won't be snapped up) and, at the other end, obviously plenty of work unsold at their last exhibition. If the artist doesn't have a healthy waiting list, then any resale can potentially hurt their career. Not necessarily, though. You may have a significant piece, and its entering the secondary market could actually strengthen the artist's reputation in certain circles (opinions will vary on this).

Thanks for the question. And good luck with the decisions.

Labels: deaccession, selling art, Tuesday's Aside


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think an auction can truly damage an artist's career as long as the artist and dealer are pricing the work accordingly and the artist is presenting only the highest quality works for sale. That said, I always offer the representing gallery first right of refusal whenever I decide to deaccesion. Some galleries jump at the chance, often offering to buy the piece outright from me. Other times, however, the piece languishes in the back room and months turn to years with few updates about attempts to sell. This usually occurs when the gallery has plenty of inventory already and the consigned work is lowest on the list of priorities because the artist will never/rarely (kudos to you Ed if you're cutting them in) see a piece of the action and the gallery stands to only take 10-20% as opposed to the 50%.

Because of this, Christopher, you should set a mutually agreed-upon limit of time for the consignment and, upon expiration, decide if an auction may be a more results-oriented course of action. Many people buy at auction because of the perceived chance of beating market prices and the houses encourage this mindset by setting estimates low. The reality is that works rarely go at extreme savings and add to that the buyer's premium and the chances of aquiring at a bargain are nill. It's all about the bloodsport. Good 'ol bloodsport.

6/03/2008 10:54:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't think an auction can truly damage an artist's career as long as the artist and dealer are pricing the work accordingly and the artist is presenting only the highest quality works for sale.

Thanks for your thoughtful and clearly informed opinion, Anon.

For the sake of readers who've not been in this position, though, I'll note that the conventional wisdom is that there are two potential "bad" outcomes to taking a living artist's work to auction. First is that the work sells for so much that it skews the artist's pricing structure. While I'd agree that so long as the artist and dealer are only selling the best work, it may be easy enough to argue that the price reflects the significance of the work (as noted in the post) and keep the prices stable, but the results can possibly lead others to decide to take the work to auction (see Christopher's comment), as well as put more pressure on dealer and artist to sell work that's perhaps not as significant.

Second, though, is the opposite. The work may not sell at all. I've seen this scenario damage artists' careers. I've seen work with a very impressive provenance go to auction during a transition period in the artist's career, not sell, and essentially throw the artist's career into chaos.

(kudos to you Ed if you're cutting them in)

We do, as a matter of principle, but of strategy as well. It keeps the artist engaged in promoting that work long after it sells.

Christopher, you should set a mutually agreed-upon limit of time for the consignment and, upon expiration, decide if an auction may be a more results-oriented course of action

I would agree with this. There's no point in the work sitting in the gallery's inventory if they can't place it.

6/04/2008 08:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without libeling anyone, could you cite an example of an artists career that was damaged by one of their works not selling at auction?

And if that truly was the case, if the artist's career was THAT predicated on market bias, doesn't it stand to reason that the career was a critical failure?

6/04/2008 07:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

What is meant by chaos?

That the work doesn't sell anymore?

Do critics decide that an artist is bad because they've ridiculously sold at auctions?

Or..If an artist can survive and still make work because they don't exactly depend on selling their art anymore... Can they still manage to get critical respect even though their gallerist threw them out SINCE the market failures?

I mean, can an artist's success be measured on different levels?


Collectors do buy art as investments with the intention to make a profit at some point. There is no need to bullshit ourselves about that aspect.

I don't think harming an artist's career is a much discussed issue
at Christie's and Sotheby's. Is it?
The issue is much more how you will be regarded by gallerists the next time you try to buy a future "investment". If you are buying the big cows, chances are you will always be received with a smile. But if you are only buying the mid-range works, they might opt to sell to a collector with whom they feel more confident. So your chances at "escalading" the scale that you've set-up will be sabotaged unless you are expert at jumping in between markets.

As far as how much money a sale can make, well, this does depend on who's artist we are talking about. Even Koons I'm sure had a period where people weren't sure if the prices would go up or down.
Even now, his prices being surrealistically high, could he be only dropping down after that? (sad to say but...there is also the question of artist's death).

Are you selling because the artist is improving (prices are up) or because the artist is going down (last few exhibits were dull)? That's a question to ask oneself.
It's tough to admit to the gallerist "I'm selling cos let's admit it, their last two exhibit sucked!". But in fact, I would presume gallerists able to predict these secondary sales to occur if they are aware themselves that their artist has just lost it.
Maybe sometimes artists simply deserve the market "harm"???

But I would imagine only the selling of a major work (that get lost in the hands of a complete "parvenue"), could be dangerous (or beneficial) to an artist. I mean, aren't people come to expect smaller works to appear in sales all the time? If you know you have a major work in hand, why would you waste it to sell it to just anybody? You're way better off with the reputation you get with negociating with museums. Go see the gallerist. But if it's a small work... really....Who cares? Get those auction bucks.

I wonder if Murakami is getting hurt by the auction of the ejaculating guy, though.


I've read the very interesting threads about How To Put Your Feet In The Art Mud, but was surprised that nothing came out about or from art critics. I would presume a critics would very well know the good spots to be "discovered" (starting group shows, etc..).

Also, I guess it's a taboo, but... The places where a gallerist is likely to visit when "they" are looking after the artists they want (I guess it would be different for all gallerists, but... ). Maybe some organized studio visit touring?

Finally, I find that while some gallerist do have an agenda or a preferred medium, many are also taking chances in diversifying their palette. An art centre will be more obvious about the type of art that they seek, if an artist wish to attempt starting there to get some (imho, respectable) CV material.


Cedric Kasebier

6/04/2008 09:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And if that truly was the case, if the artist's career was THAT predicated on market bias, doesn't it stand to reason that the career was a critical failure?

Quite the contrary.

One example I'll discuss (but will change a few superfluous details to avoid revealing the artist's identity) involved an artist who had two major bodies of work, both difficult by current market standards (i.e., not work you could easily buy and hang above the sofa). Both bodies of work were featured in international biennials and other places of critical acclaim, but one was somewhat more salable. As the artist turned, though, to focus on the less salable work in international exhibitions (both bodies were still part of the project, but the slightly more salable one was on the back burner so to speak), someone who had bought a major piece from the salable body took it to auction, where it performed embarrassingly poorly. This greatly impacted the artist's confidence, IMHO. Even her "salable" work was now seen as a risky buy (fairly or not, that was the general perception). She was already having difficulty getting the less salable work into her galleries (for understandable reasons at that time), and so when an exhibition slot came up again she returned (very unexpectedly to those of us watching her career) to the more salable work. It got the critical attention, but didn't manage to revive commercial interest. So now the artist had two bodies of unsalable work.

In short, she continued to get critical attention but couldn't jump start commercial interest and just about everyone I know who was watching points to the poor auction performance as the turning point.

This is also an example of what I meant by "chaos" Cedric. In responding to the auction result (by attempting to outsmart the market, IMHO) and returning to what had been the more salable work, she confused everyone and managed to essentially end her career. It didn't help that one collector of her work essentially dumped her entire collection (for reason unrelated to the artist in question) either, but it did add to the sense that where there had been a market for the work at one point, there no longer was one.

6/05/2008 08:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Hmmm... Something resounds from the lack of self-confidence of this artist. I hope she can manage to work that through.

A great example of self-confidence is Murakami, seen on Youtube on all the videos where he presents his retro at LAMoca. You'll notice that with half of the works he presents, he'll mention that he's embrassed that it's being shown and reveal to us exactly why (the brush mistakes, etc). On the other hand, he is also pointing at other works by describing them as "confident works", and you just get the impression that this confidence is so firm that whatever critic you could bring about them, would pass right through the artist's ears. I think this attitude is remarkable. An artist should reflect posedly about their weaknesses and strenghts, so they can build that shell around them that protect them from market and even critic influences.

Sometimes artists are in a period of transition and it should be acceptable that they are not going to "punch" the market for 2 or 3 years. The best of alltime artists often had their dark or less-interesting periods.

I think this artist might have destroyed their career themselves because of a problem with self-confidence. Also, repetition is a dangerous avenue.
An artist like Donald Judd risked a lot by repeting himself. For a while minimalism had totally lost critical impact in the 80's. But minimalism was a movement and had a romantic history to support it, so it remained viable where nowaday it would be very hard because artists are on their own.

Just to contradict that:

I am reminded of Louise Lawler who in my opinion is still doing the same thing but is still getting high marks for her latest show (Artforum pick, Jerry Saltz). The main message you get from the criticism is "why change when you are still pertinent?"

That's perhaps the great question artists should ask themselves: am I being pertinent? Not necessarely
in context of other artists, theory, an impalpable avant-garde, etc, but are you "pertinent with yourself". Are you really doing what you think you ought to be doing?

An artist should be ready for everything: sale crashes, gallerist dropping them, etc.. But I find that very little can harm a true self-confidence. An artist could crumble into poverty because nobody understand them, and still make great art (that might be recognize later).

If they omnubilate themselves by the confidence, than maybe they aren't experencing doubts enough. Every little moments in life is filled with its share of doubts. Confidence is about knowing how to make a decision at every moments.

It's a problem of the art market that art can only be viable there when it's being sold. They are countless "stand-outs" of art history which are accompanied by hellish market histories (wrether it was unsellable art, was ignored in a backroom in Paris, or pass hand from hand multiple times in auctions). So while I understand a gallerist not having a choice dropping the artist whose market is drowning, I can't bring myself to consider these temporary struggles as elemental (in the long run) to the impact the work of an artist can have.

Cedric C

(ps: artists who struggle can take another example from Murakami: make commercial commissions on one side (please try something else than Vuitton, though), and make the "real art" elsewhere. Don't just repeat your drift heartlessly simply because you need money)

6/05/2008 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

This 'hypothetical' example sounds seriously lacking in conviction as much as confidence. I think if you really believe in what you're doing - and you think you're doing more than making sellable product - then you're not really going to be interested in what happens at one auction of one work and you're certainly not going to rethink the project on the basis of one opinion.

My advice would have been a) to look more carefully at relations between the separate bodies of work - look at making these relations either obvious in subsequent 'intermediate' works or in accompanying literature to shows or publications etc. Work at making people see the work as integrated, or as departures from a single theme. B) I'd give her a swift slap around the chops and tell her to snap out of it. If she doesn't believe in her work enough to stand by past instances, no matter how wayward, how does she expect others to?

It's a question of nerve. And even though you can take a beating in the market, you've got to be convinced that your involvement is warranted, necessary and original. It doesn't matter how many friends you've got - everyone or no-one - that doesn't make you right or wrong, good or bad - it's what's in the work, the way the work works on history or tradition, on all those people that can't be there right now anytime or place, that constitute the real world beyond some idle spendthrift making a splash amongst peers.

Also - as regards repetition - either in a body of work or a career - sometimes the subtlest and most elusive of variations are the most rewarding for the efforts they elicit.

6/05/2008 09:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What I was insinuating with my request for an example was that if she had critical success, she had a career that would have been impossible to damage because criticism exists outside the market and, hopefully, is not affected by it. But if her career was actually damaged by any market fluctuation, her work really wasn't strong enough to stand the test of critical time.

6/05/2008 09:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Cap, I really like that word: conviction.

I have to remember it.


6/06/2008 02:23:00 AM  
Blogger The Lay Of The Land said...

Yeah other good ones are 'convicted' and 'convict'.

6/06/2008 02:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...



6/06/2008 05:57:00 AM  

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