Thursday, November 06, 2008

Auction Reporting Turns Ugly

Editor at Large of Art+Auction, Judd Tully, wrote something in response to the paltry performance at Christie's last night that truly surprised me:
It was an evening of price corrections, and some bottom-feeders took advantage. Long Island dealer David Benrimon acquired three significant works, including two bargain-basement deals: Georges Braque’s Nature morte à la corbeille de fruits for $842,500 (est. $1.2–1.8 million) and Joan Miró’s Femme et oiseau devant le soleil for $2,154,500 (est. $2.5–3.5 million). “Tonight you had great opportunities,” said the dealer. “It’s between 20 and 25 percent below market value,” he added of the works he purchased.
Now I don't know David Benrimon, and perhaps the exchange Mr. Tully quotes is supposed to help us understand why someone whose profession it is to secure work for his clients at the best price he can, and who does so with total transparency, deserves to be publicly labeled as a "bottom-feeder," but I found this truly shocking for the editor of a magazine. I mean what was Benrimon supposed to do, bid against himself or offer to pay more so as not to offend anyone?

Clearly he bid as long as he wanted to...clearly he met the reserve...isn't that how auctions are supposed to work? Isn't the notion that, if you're there at the right time you might get a really good price on something the auction houses' entire appeal? (It can't be the cramped cheap seating.) So someone who recognized a good deal and had the money to seize the day did so...that warrants name calling? Perhaps there is a history there I am not privy to. Perhaps for Benrimon and Tully "bottom feeder" is a shared term of endearment.

It's an emotional time for all of us in the art world, but let's not assume that the frenzy that preceded this slow down was the auction houses' birthright, nor that of folks selling now. More than that, let's recognize that the cycles in the market are simply part of the system and not cause for scapegoating. Personally, with only the information presented, I feel Mr. Tully owes Mr. Benrimon an apology.

UPDATE: Perhaps the term is less derogatory than I originally read it to be. Reader Christopher Howard notes in the comments:
Carol Vogel of the New York Times used the same term in her report on the auction: "Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million."
If so, my call for an apology would seem unwarranted (or both Tully and Vogel are being inappropriate). The term still strikes me as a grotesque characterization of someone merely taking advantage of the auction houses' main appeal.



Blogger christian said...

Wow, that is worrisome! What we need now more than anything is a little civility!

11/06/2008 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strange... I didn't read "bottom-feeders" as an insult. I read it as merely being descriptive of buying at low prices.

11/06/2008 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Strange... I didn't read "bottom-feeders" as an insult.

Possibly, but I've always assumed it was a pretty derogatory term. The first listing in the Urban Dictionary (my first choice for popular connotation over plausibly deniable definition wrangling) is:

leech, or in other words a total lack of responsibility to provide for oneself. Relies heavily upon friends, neighbors or anyone really for sustenance. a slacker through and through.

11/06/2008 09:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...


And how do you call a journalist who probably never meets the means to even begin to bottom-feed?

It's all snobism. Any empire was built on great opportunities. Everything starts with bottom-feeding.


Cedric C

11/06/2008 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

On Wall Street the term "bargain hunters" would be used in place of "bottom-feeders", which has a slightly pejorative tone.

In fact, it's a rather whiney remark considering the fact that the works actually were sold in what is obviously a very soft market.

Tully reported that "Christie’s stand-alone sale of two modern art collections fetched less than 50 percent of pre-sale expectations." What does that tell us?

It indicates that either the artworks offered might not have been as high a quality as the pre-sale estimates would suggest or that the market is weaker than expected. I looked at the jpegs last night, and I'm inclined to think it was a bit of both.

It is an indication that the "it always has to go up" art bubble has burst and that discerning collectors have an opportunity to acquire works at prices which are more affordable than they were a year ago. The froth is gone.

11/06/2008 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Howard said...

Carol Vogel of the New York Times used the same term in her report on the auction: "Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million."

11/06/2008 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I'm with Ed on this one. Insult or not, "bottom-feeder" is a tarnished sounding phrase which doesn't suit the marketplace.

11/06/2008 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric c said...


Main Entry: bot·tom–feed·er
Pronunciation: \ˈbä-təm-ˌfē-dər\
Function: noun
Date: 1885
1 : a fish that feeds at the bottom
2 : one that is of the lowest status or rank
3 : an opportunist who seeks quick profit usually at the expense of others or from their misfortune
— bot·tom–feed·ing \-diŋ\ adjective



1. A fish or other animal that feeds on the bottom of a body of water.
2. One that feeds low on the food chain; a scavenger.
3. Slang.
A) An opportunist who profits from the misfortunes of others: “The frazzled, adrenaline-pumped tabloid newshounds [in the movie] are the bottom feeders of contemporary journalism” (Entertainment Weekly).
B) A low or despicable person.

Insult or not??
Sounds like insult.



11/06/2008 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

From the words of wall street, terms that are used for the buyers during or after a price decline include, "bargain hunters", "bottom fishing", "dagger catching" but rarely "bottom feeders".

Wall street prices tend to be constantly in flux and the phrases "bottom fishing" and "dagger catching" implicitly acknowledge this.

The purpose of an auction market to to establish the current price based upon all the know information at the time of bidding. As a result the pricing will also reflect that one or more collectors may have a more personal reason for buying, or may have better information for making their bids.

Further, the terms "bargain hunters", "bottom fishing", and "dagger catching" also suggest a degree of uncertainty about pricing. Until the price trend starts to rise, something which has not yet occurred, the "bottom" has not been established and a degree of price risk still exists.

The term "bottom feeder" implies that a bottom has been established, something which we do not, in fact, know at the present time. Given this shading of meaning, it implies that the purchaser is somehow taking advantage of the market to the detriment of everyone else. This cannot be the case, since it is unlikely that other buyers are not buying for lack of funds but because of fear or the lack of commitment.

In this light, the use of the term "bottom feeder" implicates the entire art auction market as a Ponzi scheme, where prices can never go down, something which we can see is patently not the case.

In order for the art market to survive, at the economic scale we have today, it needs a liquid secondary market for artworks. This market liquidity is fulfilled by both gallery backroom sales and the auction market. Prices need to be able to rise and decline in order for the secondary market to be both effective and responsive to the current demand and greater economic conditions.

Bargain hunters are the first line of defense for arresting a price decline.

11/06/2008 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger nina said...

I'm with with Edward Wikelman on this one.

11/06/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger lookinaroundbob said...

I used to like The flounder stuffed with crab meat (2 notorious bottom feeders) but what would that leave me....feeding on bottom feeders...

11/06/2008 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And had Mr. Benrimon been some Russian oligarch who paid 5x over the estimate, would Tully have called him a comparable term like "bagholder?"

11/06/2008 09:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yikes! I'm the person phone phones the auction house post-sale to see what kind of offer they'll accept for unsold lots. What does that make me?

11/06/2008 09:21:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

Insult or not, how can one call buying a Miro' bargain-hunting?

11/07/2008 03:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unless you're talking about a fish, it's a dig, and even for fish, nothing to be proud of. Ever see "bottom feeder" as a plus on a menu? Regina Hackett

11/07/2008 04:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bottom Feeder MAY be a term of contempt for someone who ONLY ever buys LOW; the greedy, heavy panter, who is not really interested in ART. Motives and actions are two different things. We all enjoy a good deal. Some are only ever looking for a bargain. There is something slightly contemptable about these sorts of personalites, No?


11/07/2008 07:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone who tries to buy priceless heirlooms from starving people for pennies - that's a bottom feeder. This is just an example of being at the right place at the right time with some available cash.

11/07/2008 07:51:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

You're right to call for an apology Edward. I wouldn't want to be described as resembling a flounder, or a lobster for that matter, who feed on the garbage that falls from above. Not very flattering. On the other hand, if it's a Miro that's floating down....

Happy birthday Bambino, and all Scorpios.

11/07/2008 08:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn Picasso said...

Actually, Wall Street does have those who are 'bottom feeders' as opposed to 'bargain hunters'. Bargain hunters are those who have capital in times of tight credit, are those who bought Google at 450 instead of it's high in the mid-500's, Apple @ 100 after it's summer high of 249. The Oracle of Omaha would be the classic example. 'bottom feeders' are those who are moins d'argent, less monied, who buy penny stocks w/ the hope of hitting the one Google that will skyrocket. Most traders take a pejorative view of these bottom dwellers. I'm originally from Maryland where there are many large rivers coursing into the Chesapeake. Home to many catfish, a bottom feeder, this was considered a fine meal by poor rural working class. So, maybe there is a class distinction at work here. Moreover, the Blue Channel Crab, so endearing for its crab cakes and soft shelled crab sandwiches, is also a bottom dweller when not sloughing w/ the tide. Both species are scavengers. Perhaps that's where the negative connotations enter, bottom feeders are scavengers, meaning they don't hunt, they nourish themselves on the corpses of others. The Blue Channel, though, is considered THE prince of the Bay.

11/10/2008 08:20:00 PM  
Anonymous hey man amen said...

yes, but there are Shrimp Platters Fucking Everywhere!

11/11/2008 06:33:00 AM  
Blogger kat said...

I am an artist, private dealer and collector. I label myself a "bottom-feeder" when bidding for myself at auction. It IS derogatory. I wish I could afford to be a "big spender". On the other hand, if it weren't for us "cheapskates" like Mr. Benrimon, the paintings in question might have "bought-in" and that would have been a real shame as they would have carried that scar for possibly years to come. THANK GOODNESS FOR ANYONE BIDDING IN THIS ENVIRONMENT.

11/13/2008 07:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew Crispo said:
as for Judd Tully (who is personally a nice guy) but
as for his persona as an art critic/writer of the art scene A>C> comments: "no one ever built a monument to an art critic" ! David Benrimon has the
right and the money to buy at auction or privately....he (unlike most of American folks ) is actually "stimulating the economy" by spending his hard earned money. As far as I'm quote Cole
Porter: " [ David Benrimon} is the to......he's the Tower of Pisa...[he's] the top ......he's the Mona Lisa" and so on. Hip hip hooray for David Benrimon.

11/16/2008 10:14:00 AM  

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