No one you see, is smarter than he
I pointed to an article a while back in a post whose thread took a detour a bit different from what I had expected (for which I'll accept full responsibility), but I wanted to go back to it again and highlight a part of it that in my mind deserves much more consideration. The article, by Bloomberg's Katya Kazakina, focused on the accelerating rate at which "collectors" are flipping contemporary artwork at auction. The bit I'd like to focus on here is this:
From 2011 through 2013, the number of works three years old or younger sold at auction topped 7,300 annually, compared with 4,023 in 2007 when the art market was peaking, according to research firm Artnet Worldwide Corp.This nugget came back to me recently while talking with a good friend who has a gallery that has traditionally sold work in the $20K-$50K range, to collectors who we'd consider lower-upper class all the way up to the 1%. The type of artwork this friend sells steadily appreciates, but none of the gallery artists have made the kind of astonishing leaps in their pricing that Kazakina highlights in her article. What this friend reported though, are two trends that seem clearly influenced by a perception among the gallery's collectors that "flipping" is now how one is supposed to behave as a "collector."
First are the number of collectors coming back to this gallery much more quickly to resell work than ever before. Whereas collectors used to wait on average about 10 years before asking the gallery to try to resell the work, increasingly that time period is shrinking. The point this gallerist friend made about this trend that stuck with me was that their collectors seemed to begin feeling stupid for not trying to capitalize on the "money to be made" in flipping contemporary art. The growing sense among them was that the flippers were being smarter than they were, and so they felt the pressure to dive into those waters.
The second trend this friend reported, though, is even more disturbing. Increasingly collectors they used to be able to pitch a $20k or $30k work to on a regular basis are informing them that they're going to pass so that they can "save up" to buy one of the hot brand-name artist's works. It's one thing for the collectors who support a gallery to feel they need to move their collection around much more quickly, but when they shift what they buy and the artists they support to a smaller and smaller subsection of the market (the same subsection many other collectors are also focused on), tulip mania cannot be far around the corner.
I know a collector (who's one of the Top 200 collectors in the world according to ArtNews) who made the decision to never sell anything from their considerable collection while they're alive. It's a beautiful commitment, and one that impresses me immensely. I also know plenty of collectors who also impress me who decide from time to time to sell a work back through the gallery or at auction, usually so they can buy more artwork (we lovingly call these collectors "the addicts"), and I've talked with them about their decision to collect this way and feel strongly it's as valid a choice as the collector who chooses to never sell anything. None of this is troublesome for me. These are personal decisions, and the best collections in my opinion are those that reflect a personal vision.
What the practice of flipping as sport or at a pace so clearly only about the money reflects, however, is not something that impresses me at all. It's something that quite frankly nauseates me. I personally value what contemporary art is about too much to accept anyone's view who reduces it to merely a commodity. I find that position callous and beyond philistine, and life is far too short to subject yourself to such attitudes willingly.
So while the flippers may seem to some smarter than anyone else they see, every time I sincerely consider that, the old Bible quote springs to mind: "And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" I'm quite sure that will strike those so busy counting their auction profits as melancholic or hyperbolic. Or they'll sniff, "Who are you? And why should I care about your little opinion." And that's fair enough.
But check back in with me on your death bed and let me know if you still feel that way. I hope to be contemplating the beautiful work I cherish that hangs in my bedroom. YMMV.