Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finally, Some Depth in Auction Coverage

A few weeks back, in a post about how poorly the auction houses were treating arts journalists, I noted "Part of me truly wishes the art press were as anxious to cover gallery exhibitions or art in general as they are the auctions."

As is often the case for this Mid-westerner raised to be polite, I had understated my true feelings. What I really wished to say at that point was something more like "part of me has little sympathy for the arts press that seems to contribute
so willingly to the sense in this country that the 'value' of art can only be measured by auction results."

Indeed the "story" of the arts in the 2010's may indeed be how, despite a lingering recession and nearly epidemic art world ennui,
still nothing grabs the art world's attention like how many zeros you're placing after that dollar sign. But the "story" is, and always has been, to a very large degree what the press says it is. And so, they are complicit by default.

All of which is my way of saying how refreshing I found the article in The New York Times this morning that takes a less operatic, indeed much more sober point of view on the auction results than we normally get:
As all the talk of record prices demonstrates, contemporary art has soared in value over the last 10 years, outperforming stocks as an investment and drawing attention to possible bonanzas to be found in the market.

But not all boats have lifted with the tide.

Prices for the work of a variety of artists, including some top names like Larry Rivers, Eric Fischl and Francesco Clemente, have declined or stayed flat at auction in recent years, according to data compiled by Artnet, a company that tracks such sales.

For example, a Dutch Masters painted cigar box, created by Rivers and valued as high as $40,000 last year, sold in September for less than $4,000. Last month Mr. Fischl’s untitled painting of robed figures in a church sold for $194,500, $70,000 less than it fetched six years ago.

And Mr. Clemente’s “Parabola,” a painting Sotheby’s had valued as high as $90,000 a year ago, sold for a third of that in March. Often these are temporary descents. Other works by these artists can still command hefty prices. A Clemente painting estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 at auction this spring sold for $76,900.
Why is this an important topic? Because Clemente, Fischl and Rivers are important artists, and because the class of MFA grads just now entering the big scary art world needs to know that artist careers more often than not have ups AND downs (if they have any ups at all). If all you read is how this record was broken or that record fell at the contemporary sales, you'll have little more than those milestones by which to measure your own success.

Now I'm sure some of the arts journalist reading this will argue that there are other factors that contribute to the usual boom-or-doom approach to auction coverage. One, I sure, is a lack of time to much else other than report the final hammer prices and a few anecdotes. Another is a lack of perspective being fed them by their auction house contacts:

Nonetheless, at a time when so much attention is paid to skyrocketing values, the dreary performance of some artists’ portfolios is a topic seldom broached.

“We in the auction business want to put our best foot forward, so when we get a good price, we make a big fuss about it,” said Elaine Stainton, the director of the painting department at the auction house Doyle New York. “When we have a disappointing sale, we keep our mouths shut.”
In this case, I can't blame the auction houses. No one should be asked to advertise their shortcomings.

I guess the ultimate thing for me in all this, though, is how the focus on whether or not each individual sale was a "success" or "failure" based on tallies only demeans the art exchanging hands. There, in front of the auction house audience and the press alike, are very often great works of art by historically important artists, and yet usually the only thing we're told is whether they've met their estimate or not. Oh, if you're lucky the auctioneer will drop a sound bite about its provenance or quality, but for something so rare that's about to potentially disappear into a private collection and not be seen again for decades, shouldn't a bit more reflection be in order, at least by the press? Hammer prices are such a short-sighted take on what's truly important. Artists trying to make sense of it all, in particular, should be reminded of one thing the auction results are truly revealing:
“There is a constant ebb and flow in art historical reputations,” said Jeffrey Deitch, a longtime New York gallery owner who now directs the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “The reputation of even the greatest figures like Picasso are in flux.”
The article goes on to do a real service to collectors and artists alike in more seriously translating auction results:

Representatives for artists who have not done as well at auction say the data does not really measure the true value of their work. More ambitious pieces are often sold privately, by dealers, they said, and those prices are generally not made public. Only about half of all art purchases are made at auction, where prices are announced and can be analyzed.

“It’s a tool that you really need to use with caution,” said Ron Warren, the director of the Mary Boone Gallery, which represents Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Fischl.

Some also worry that whatever the accuracy of auction data, using it to track values is a crude exercise that considers aesthetic expressions only as commodities.

“Auctions are a blunt instrument,” said Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery. Better measures, he argued, would be criteria like: “How many galleries are trying to get a Murakami show from Murakami’s main dealers? How many museum or gallery shows of X artist are there per year? How many different continents do they show on per year?”

The article also discusses a trend that annoys me even more than tallies only auction coverage:
[M]ore and more people now consult auction data compiled and analyzed by a growing number of companies that seek to provide quantitative measures of value. These consultants acknowledge that auction data is an imperfect tool.

“But there is no other verifiable measure of fluctuation of value — up or down — and the overall health of the market,” said Michael Plummer, co-owner of Artvest, an art investment advisory firm. “Without it, we would all be fumbling around in the dark.”

No, without it, we would all still have plenty of light. All the better to judge and/or buy with our eyes and not our ears.

Moreover, it's not a better understanding of statistical trends or data points that will elucidate the value of contemporary art or the true state of the art market...it's the kind of wider- and longer-term view offered by this Times article. And so I say kudos to the article's authors, Robin Pogrebin and Kevin Flynn, for doing a thoughtful, and ultimately much more useful auction analysis piece.

More of the same, please.

Labels: art auctions, arts coverage


Anonymous sheri said...

Of course, I thoroughly agree that I wish there was more of this kind of in-depth coverage.

But arts writers are responding to what their editors ask them to cover; the editors have to respond to how much space they have to cover all the arts; readers seem to be more interested in 'operatic' stories about money changing hands.

In other words, at the root is the fact that our culture values money (and data) far more than art.

But, (in case that sounds thoroughly depressing), I'm enough of an idealist think that collectively we might yet be able to shift that, just a little - through arts education, etc.

5/31/2011 09:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there was a art market stock exchange I would be getting ready to short Gerhard Richter from the look of his NY Times chart Warhol seems to be making a double top . Fishl , Clemente are making massive bases before a breakout. Rivers might have broke out. BUY BUY BUY!

5/31/2011 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger ellen yustas k. gottlieb said...

Dear Edward! thanks for yet another brilliant overview. Money vs. art, art vs. $. Can't agree with you more that no statistics and data from current sales justifies or gives "imprimature" to the art which is sacred, no money can buy true art and it will always surface from the sources perhaps unknown to the establishment based on analysis of profitability of art industry. Art is not the industry to provide investment such as precious metals since the precious matter of art is in human sacrifice and not it's phisical givens. What happens IMHO is that art world is too eager jumping on a money train to do well quickly picking up on critical cheer since it is now the only way of supporting artists, not ever being straightforward to weed out week art. This role is now totally yours and probably quite a burden. I will always repeat your word "KILLER ART" It could be found right at your doorsteps but sometimes the true creator of genius art is someone unable to deal with establishment for the above reasons of commercialization, void of certain philosophical school of thought. i am forever greatful to read this article on a day that my brain is nearly fried from the sun. Respect! Ellen

5/31/2011 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

No, without it, we would all still have plenty of light. All the better to judge and/or buy with our eyes and not our ears.

on the same day I read this intirguing piece out of MIT:


It is a study that aims to catgorize what it is that makes an image memorable - a great marketing tool possibly for camera manufacturers or some types of art galleries. It is really intriguing, but as one of the authors, Phillip Isola, states :

“Pleasantness and memorability are not the same,”

Yet likely having an AI app to tell you if your image is "memorable" might be a temptation to many to use this as another misconstured basis of measuring the value of an image... That art criticism nor appreciation is reduced to ONLY this. As you point out ED, the art connaisseur (and artists) needs to trust themselves.

5/31/2011 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Too bad we can’t see the examples by the noted artists that failed at recent auctions. Names are one thing, but collectors might also be paying attention to the merits of individual works – all artists have their off days, turn out the occasional dud. Rivers, Clemente and Fischl are/were all prolific artists, and there may be quality issues with their recent auctions. If this is so – then frankly I think it’s a good thing – collectors shouldn’t be buying just names.

5/31/2011 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger Guy Denning said...

"buy with our eyes and not our ears"
Indeed - very well put.

6/01/2011 03:47:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Artists who live in NYC should take advantage of the auction houses as an unheralded resource for seeing contemporary art. The preview shows are usually up for 5-6 days and free.

You will see work by artists you read about in the magazines or online, all hung together hodgepodge style. Generally there will be a lot of works you will be unfamiliar with. The general feeling is different than viewing in a museum or gallery, all the other suits look you like you might be a competitor.

6/02/2011 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

boils down to the " King with no Clothes" really. No one wants anything unless everyone else wishes it were theirs. Kinda gives me a warped respect for art heists where people steal the art to shut themselves up with it and look at it with no hope of selling or publicity :-)

6/03/2011 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger YlarTassan said...

So what does this tell us artists? Improve your work and ignore the ignorant people who only buy with their ears. There will be an audience for your work, you just have to promote the hell out of your own work. I'm convinced that the secret to having any great career is to do great work. Private buyers rock.

6/27/2011 10:01:00 PM  

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