Finally, Some Depth in Auction Coverage
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.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.
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.
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:
In this case, I can't blame the auction houses. No one should be asked to advertise their shortcomings.
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.”
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:
The article also discusses a trend that annoys me even more than tallies only auction coverage:
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?”
[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.