Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Determining Long-Term Value

A good deal of chatter around the sky-high prices of some contemporary artwork lately centers on how it's too early to know whether the work will stand the test of time. In particular, the thinking goes, it's too early to know whether years from now anyone will continue to care about it, despite how its current price would suggest it's important work. This is generally accompanied by an example of an artist who was popular during his/her (but mostly his) lifetime or whose work sold at auction for some astronomical sum, only to have the artist's work relegated to the dustbins of art history later on. 

Scott Reyburn provided a textbook example of this progression of thought in the Sunday New York Times, in an interesting article about whether the red-hot economic theory (just translated into English) by the French rock-star-economist Thomas Piketty can be applied to art:
As during the so-called Belle Époque, certain living artists, whose longevity is still unproven, find they have a cult following. Christopher Wool (born 1955) is the high priest of American painting at the moment, particularly after the record $26.5 million paid for his 1988 work “Apocalypse Now” at the $1.3-billion series of contemporary art auctions in New York in November. Private museums, packed with works by Mr. Wool, Wade Guyton, Mark Grotjahn and other must-have names, are sprouting up across the world.
“People are spending millions on works by artists who have questionable long-term value,” [Ivor Braka, a London dealer who has been buying and selling high-value art since 1978] said.
“Do they have taste?” he added. “I don’t know. That’s capitalism. You can spend money on what you want.”
Back in 1882, the British businessman-cum-art speculator Thomas Holloway, using the best art advice that money could buy, splurged £6,615 on “The Babylonian Marriage Market” by Edwin Long, an auction record at the time for any living English artist. The painter and the painting are now forgotten.
In general, people have good reason to expect high auction prices to correlate with art historical importance. The highest prices paid for artwork at auction or known private sales are indeed for works by artists generally accepted in the canon (even if each of the works themselves are only questionably among their best). 

Consider the list of the 20 publicly known (or estimated) most expensive paintings ever sold :
$269 ($259) Paul Cézanne, "The Card Players," 1892/93 [April 1, 2011]
$162 ($140) Jackson Pollock, "No. 5, 1948," 1948 [November 2, 2006]
$159 ($137) Willem de Kooning, "Woman III," 1953 [November 18, 2006]
$155 ($155) Pablo Picasso, "Le Rêve," 1932 [March 26, 2013]
$155 ($135) Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," 1907 [June 18, 2006]
$149 ($82) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," 1890 [May 15, 1990]
$142 ($142) Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969 [November 12, 2013]
$141 ($78) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Bal du moulin de la Galette," 1876 [May 17, 1990]
$129 ($104) Pablo Picasso, "Garçon à la pipe," 1905 [May 4, 2004]
$122 ($119) Edvard Munch, "The Scream,"    1895 [May 2, 2012]
$118 ($110) Jasper Johns, "Flag," 1954 [March 1, 2010]
$114 ($106) Pablo Picasso, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust," 1932 [May 4, 2010]
$111 ($58*) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of Joseph Roulin," 1889 [August 1, 1989]
$110 ($95) Pablo Picasso, "Dora Maar au Chat," 1941 [May 3, 2006]
$109 ($53) Vincent van Gogh, "Irises," 1889 [November 11, 1987]
$108 ($100) Andy Warhol, "Eight Elvises," 1963 [October 1, 2008]
$105 ($105) Barnett Newman, "Anna's Light," 1968 [October 4, 2013]
$105 ($105) Andy Warhol, "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)," 1963 [November 13, 2013]
$102 ($87) Gustav Klimt, "Adele Bloch-Bauer II," 1912 [November 2, 2006]
$102 ($71) Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe," 1889 [November 19, 1998]

First dollar amounts [in millions, and rounded for space] are adjusted for inflation to show comparable expectations of "importance" via sale price. Prices in parenthesis were prices (or generally accepted estimates) on day of sale. Dates at end were dates of sale, for reference in how long the work had been around for the public/art world to weigh in on its importance.
 *plus exchange of works

Mind you, the shortest length of time between the creation of one of these works and their record sales price was 44 years (for the Francis Bacon), and some of them had exchanged hands several times before they reached these peaks in prices. But again, if you follow such reports, it's logical that you would expect high auction prices to correspond to art historical importance (and long-term value).

In the flippant auction atmosphere of contemporary art today, the amounts of money stirring questions of art historical importance are pennies compared to the record prices, so perhaps it is all relative. But it's still millions of dollars, and so the questions of "long-term value" do linger.

Through a series of conversations lately, I've been trying to reconcile my working assumptions about what makes art "historically important" with the question of determining "long-term value." Perhaps sharing those thoughts and conversations here can help collectors avoid any
Edwin-Long-type "mistakes" (which I put in quotes because to me it's not a mistake if you go to your grave truly loving the artwork, but your heirs may disagree...). If nothing else, perhaps it can open up a healthy debate as to whether the question of "long-term value" makes sense within the context of contemporary art auction prices. Here goes:

My long-standing theory has been that what makes any artwork truly "important" is the influence it has on other artists. If other artists look to it for its ideas, aesthetic achievement, or innovation--in short, if it opens up opportunities for other artists in solving problems within their own practice--then on the most fundamental level it's "historically important" to my mind. This can take years to happen (as in the case of the now widely influential Philip Guston, who was considerably less so until a generation of younger artists started turning to him for answers about 20 years ago), but I do believe this is a key to whether or not something contemporary will become art historically important.

This quality, though, of opening up opportunities for other artists, can take several forms. It can be something quite technical, such as the "invention" (or rediscovery, if you will) of linear perspective. It can be a liberating break with traditional notions of what "art" is supposed to look like or be made from. It can be an achievement in creating something so beautiful that other artists simply marvel at the fact that it now exists. 

What unites all these forms of influence, to my mind, though, is innovation and uniqueness. It's something new, something that didn't exist before this work was created that captures the imagination of other artists and propels a work into that category of "important." If an artwork isn't innovative or unique in some way, if there's not something new in it that other artist can learn from, something that they don't already know from seeing some already accessible work, the more recent work's odds of becoming influential seem quite diminished. Again, other artists may turn to a work that offers nothing seemingly innovative, simply because it's so damn well done, but it's that "thing" that makes it so damn well done that I would argue is also something that's, in its own way, new and unique in the world. That "thing" that makes other artists wonder How did they do that? and turn to it frequently for answers. If you can find damn well done works on every corner, why would you seek out the one perhaps half a world away? 

And so, I return to the question at hand: How can you avoid shelling out millions at auction for the next Edwin Long? One answer I come up with is to avoid artwork that is in no way innovative. Of course, this requires a solid grasp of art history, which is time consuming or requires advice you can trust. Moreover, as the contemporary art market goes increasingly global, a "solid grasp" is more and more all-but-impossible for any given individual. And so, perhaps a better, more reliable/actionable answer is: Seek out the work that looks like nothing you've ever seen before (that can include something that's just so damn well done, you can't get it out of your mind). None of which will guarantee it's unique in the world (although it's easy enough to ask your dealer or artist friends if they know of other work like it), but your long-term odds are much higher with such art than they are with work that brings nothing new to the table for other artists to get excited about.


Blogger Carol Diehl said...

Perhaps you'll see this being in your "well done" category, but I'd add an artist who has done an old thing so well it becomes new. So much that strives for innovation right now is not that at all, but a recycling of worn-out ideas. Long-term value in these times may lay in perfecting ideas as well as innovating.

4/22/2014 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I do consider that in the "well done" category, Carol yes.

Recycling worn-out ideas seems could conceivably land an artist in the same place (where they perfect something that thereby becomes influential), but it's god-awfully boring watching that process.

4/22/2014 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not to mention its success rate seems rather low, historically speaking.

4/22/2014 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Urban Earthen said...

After the "museum quality" question this is such a great post and your advice to "...avoid artwork that is in no way innovative" combined with "just so damn well done, you can't get it out of your mind" is the first really solid concept I can wrap my head around that solves both loving a piece intrinsically, and the piece having historical importance.

4/22/2014 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

It needs to be said, Ed, though I believe you know this. But art isn’t made to be collected (or shouldn‘t be), and “long-term value” is a marketplace priority, not an art priority. Any artist or appreciator of art who is thinking about long-term value is missing the point of art, IMO. Art is made in the moment and should be appreciated in the moment. It has about as much to do with investment as a long walk in the woods.

I’m a contemporary abstract painter and yesterday I spent the day revisiting the work of George Bellows because it is so damn good, and it will influence my work. My favorite painting at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago is Bernat Martorell’s ”St. George Killing The Dragon” from the 1400s, which I saw perhaps 50 times in 2012 while living in Chicago, and it will influence my work.

The point being that art and artists are not only time-tested and vetted by collectors but also artists. It is pure gambling to bet on what might be considered significant 100 years from now, although there are certainly enough powerful people out there with enough money in place to pretty much ensure that some artists will become part of the canon and some won’t, and not because of actual quality or significance. Simply by the sheer power of their money. History is written by the powerful, after all. History is not a particularly honest endeavor focused purely on merit.


4/24/2014 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

(cont'd from above)

Artists learn from all artists - not just their contemporaries. Great art is great art and, frankly, there is no way to know what will have lasting value because there is no way to know what the world will look like 100 or 200 or 500 years from now. It’s quite possible that artists in 200 years will absolutely hate much of the work being done today and will find it irrelevant and hollow and a low point in art history. Who knows?

Art is a very complex activity with, hopefully, complex results. Innovation is just one of the things that contribute to the overall significance and importance of art. Reductionist thinking that isolates one element as being primary over the whole is never a good approach to complex systems, IMO. Our present day addiction to newness and innovation is, frankly, more a byproduct of the zeitgeist of our time than it is to art and has more to do with marketplace forces that fuel capitalism and consumption. Not that originality and invention aren’t significant to art. They are. But great art is so much more.

If you truly want to stop the flipping of art in the contemporary art world, then I would suggest everyone in the industry just drop the words “investment” and “long-term value” from their conversations. Those words and that kind of thinking has opened up Pandora’s box. It might be time to close it back up, if that is even possible anymore.

No one goes to a baseball game to place bets on which players will make it into the Hall of Fame. Players expect players to try their best, fans expect players to try their best. The sun shines, people cheer and boo, there is lots of beer and hotdogs. Anyone who is sitting in their seats gambling, apprehensively, on which players will be remembered 50 or 100 years from now is really missing the point. The point is right now, in this moment, and enjoying your time at the game, win or lose. History will sort everything out.

But if you want to gamble that’s fine, too. Hopefully you’re gambling with money you can afford to lose. But the drawback with gambling on the arts is not losing one’s money. It’s in the hyped up speculation that a few players will have such historic significance that all the attention goes to those players - and everyone misses the other 99.9 percent of the players who are out there giving it their all and doing a damn good job. Some of whom history will decide had more to offer than the prematurely crowned stars who ended up having very short and very disappointing careers and turned out to be bums.

So, really, just have a hotdog and a few beers and sit back and enjoy the game. Buy some art you really love and sit back and appreciate it right now. You could be dead tomorrow.

4/24/2014 08:30:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"The point being that art and artists are not only time-tested and vetted by collectors but also artists"

That's my main point here exactly, though, Lee. What's primary to me is what art is important. Much important art never really finds a strong market, which is unfortunate for that artist, but not necessarily for the rest of us if the work is preserved. The catch in that, though, is that work that becomes expensive via the market is more likely to be preserved.

4/24/2014 09:53:00 AM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

Maybe it's been said, so my comment will not be innovative, but perhaps it will possess some unheimlich, uncanny or even sublime quality, as I have now appeared after some time to report back from "the hood".

Or rather, to report from a tiny sub-section of "the art world," that sometimes on, sometimes awry, looks at "concept art" as a style or "movement" but also, realizes that the narrow definition of art as "that which contains meaning" or "that which attracts meaning" is somewhat indefensible in the face of much redundancy and repetition of thought (redundant being not necessarily repetitive - there are many ways and means to achieve the same redundant ends - perhaps as amny as there are people).

What is done well? A dovetail joint? How blousey, blazé, off the cuff or otherwise casually offhand is it possible to get before the canvas simply cease to even be? How ephemeral? Or conversely, How OBSESSIVELY OBDURATE and LASTING FOR ALL TIME. What is more human than human? Many artists can now only draw with machines, their hand-eye coordination so atrophied that their feeble effete GESTURES cease to echo in the halls of relevance or lasting culture of any kind other than the culture of gestures, of forgetting, of aristocratic nihilism or abject abandonment?

Much "concept art" is like reading a pop psychology book or a layman's cognitive science treatise. If art is merely cognitive science then count me out. There is no bacchanal in head games - no unfettered joy - no rock rolling mythology - the poesis is a mere echo, gives no one winged feet or a fire in their heart - unless somehow the function of art is to illustrate cognitive illusions or biases.

The myth of modernism is that nothing original true and good in art ever truly repeats itself, that the pantheon can never be forgotten, that ownership is 9-10ths if the law and that money is the arbiter of what we pay attention to.

I disagree with the idea that artists are not reincarnated in some way, that there will never be another DeKooning for our time full of dekoonings that are worth every bit as much. I disagree that there is another "movement" of art full of brand new planets with totally alien lifeforms to be copyrighted and marketed. Call me a populist, but though I love art, I disagree that only one artist can make one kind of art, for all time, and that that art is the only art that will ever be valued so highly because it was "the first" of it's kind.
Firsts, the modernist curse.

4/25/2014 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Jay Grimm said...

Ed, this is written with your usual sensitive, insightful aplomb, and your willingness to put your theory out where it can be debated is admirable, but I think you only strike a glancing blow at the issue. While I do agree with you that what makes a work or artist important is the influence it has on other artists, what I think you are saying is that a valuable work contains some innate qualities that shine through for all time and will forever be recognized as such. But art doesn’t really speak …we only think it does. “Value” is determined by us, the people looking at it, and we can and do change our minds. You imply that Thomas Holloway was a sucker for paying a record price for Edwin Long, considered by his peers to be among the greatest, when, for the same money at that time he probably could have bought every Van Gogh ever painted. Long invested using a short-term outlook which was proved wrong in the long run and he would have been better off using the criteria of finding work that was original and/or was so well executed that it was unforgettable. The problem is, we have no way of knowing what future generations will admire. Here in the white-hot cauldron of the present, we cannot know if an artist is innovative or merely misguided….it takes time to sort that out. Edwin Long probably looked ‘original’ to Mr. Holloway, and I am sure that you would agree that Long is a first-rate technician. If you chose Braque over Picasso in 1910, that would have been understandable. Braque was arguably the more innovative of the two. How would you know that he would end up as a footnote? Would your criteria helped in 16th Century Delft to choose Vermeer over the scores of talented painters working there? And even when Vermeer was rediscovered in the 19th Century, about half the paintings they thought were by his hand turned out not to be.

So I must disagree with your advice. If you want to avoid overspending on a work of art, wait about twenty years for the hype to die down and for it to become more clear that it is actually relevant. With the benefit of hindsight, a collector has a much better chance of capturing the rise in monetary worth of a given work of art. Looking at your top-ten list of the most expensive works sold proves my point. In almost every case, the person who made the most money bought it at least twenty years after its creation (and as you note, it took a minimum of 44 years after being created for a work to make the top-ten). For example, David Geffen did not buy his Pollock in the 1940s, nor did Michael Creighton buy the 1954 Jasper Johns flag painting until 1980.

Of course, there is another way to improve your odds of making money buying contemporary art: buy a lot of it. Instead of (or in addition to) buying an Oscar Murillo painting, take the $500,000 (or whatever they are now) and buy the work of 25 lesser-known practitioners. And, by the way, god bless those people who do just that! But would your advice about seeking out the most original or the most innovative after spending long hours of study help them? I am not so sure. I concur that a lot of looking, reading and listening is part of it, but after that, I think a collector’s own idiosyncratic impulses and reasons are a better guide than keeping the focus on innovation. “I am not sure why I bought it…I just liked it” is, in my opinion, the best strategy. Speculating on what will be considered innovative down the road will not help and might even hurt.

The history of modern art actually does contain a handful of sagacious collectors and advisors who were able to spot talent early. I do wonder if those people were simply lucky, but they seem to have been right so often that perhaps more was at work. My thinking keeps leading me back to wondering if these people might have had some innate ability; maybe their eyes and their brain worked in such a way as to make it easier for them. Do you think it is possible that the best collectors, long-term, have a genetic advantage ?

4/27/2014 09:00:00 AM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

Jay you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth! Do you honestly believe collectors are a separate species?

4/27/2014 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Two things. One, very nice to see you're alive and well...Two, let's not descend to insults please... Explain why you disagree if you do...

I think some collectors, and that's how I read Jay,are better at spotting important art than others. How does that suggest they're collectively a separate species

4/27/2014 03:49:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/27/2014 09:05:00 PM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

"Do you think it is possible that the best collectors, long-term, have a genetic advantage ? "

Ok I was being hyperbolic. I do think reputations can be hyped after the fact (of finding an unknown in the attic (no mutant genetics required))

To the winners the spoils! (that goes for all youse).

4/28/2014 01:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Jay Grimm said...

Zipthwung is correct, albeit, as admitted, hyperbolic. I wasn’t suggesting that astute collectors are a different species. Although if they were, a simple DNA test would be all that art fairs would require for VIP status! Zipthwung is also correct in implying that some of these ‘great eyes’ also possessed the showmanship and charisma to simply prove themselves right, such as Leo Castelli. Since I have chosen to disagree with Ed’s theory that one can detect what is original at the time an object is made, I am forced to give another explanation of why it is that there are people who were able to be right many times over a long period of time. And I keep coming back to the thought that there is some way that their mind operates that is inherent, that cannot be taught which gives them this ability.
It is an easy thought to deride. But maybe I could ask Zipthwung…what is it that explains how some people can figure out before the rest of us that something is going to be ‘valuable’? It cannot always be market manipulation.

4/28/2014 01:15:00 PM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

Everybody is being so reasonable. Obviously the myth of the individual ( auteurtheory?) singular artist is a simplification of a very complex process. As an aside, they made brains transparent by replacing the fat. I think something similar must be done here).

Art objects are the result of an ecosystem, of which the artist is a part. To see it otherwise is to ascribe to extreme essentialism where the individual contains a world unto itself.

I think good collectors like hanging out with artists, or have spies who do - perhaps a whole company of spies - like a trend-watch company.

For example, I noticed a micro-trend of "artists who paint with fire extinguishers" which is similar to "artists who paint abstractly with spray paint" but more of a wonky airbrush than a fine feathered spray, neither using a "fat tip" nor eschewing spray at all, favoring a hybrid splatter-spray that one could just as easily achieve with a stick, while drunk, perhaps in a rented long island barn.

I just don't see any real distinction unless you focus on tools used, or technique - which can be boring and hardly a sales pitch.

Why fire extinguishers? Why now? Who did it first, I have no idea. Who does it best? I will let you know.

4/29/2014 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

Here's another question more from the artist's point of view. If you worry about originality it can really stop you from making work at all. In my experience for every though i feel like I generate organically from my subconscious there are plenty of others doing the same - the worst thing you can do as an artist is to compare yourself to others. Worse than drinking all day. I call this the Hellen Keller plagiarism effect, where everyone is always plagiarizing all the time. Sometimes people notice, sometimes you get away with it. In advertising nothing is very original - sometimes you think "oh, that's so new and interesting" and then you realize that's just one farmed idea amongst thousands.
In art, the police are a lot stricter - and I have been an asshole on numerous occasions based on bogus, hyperbolic claims to originality of thought. I am too sophisticated to say "my kid could do that" but I can definitely feel like that as an artist. Originality is not a pool of fire, but sometimes it can feel that way. I mean like lava.

4/29/2014 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

" If you worry about originality it can really stop you from making work at all."

I have heard that before and can appreciate that. I don't think artists should create work with what collectors or the public in general will think at all. The advice above is for collectors.

4/29/2014 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Zipthwung said...

It's all well and good to think you can isolate yourself as an artist - but unless you are making "visionary" work in obscurity (anyone can!) then you are going to be playing a kind of territorial pissing game with other artists (depends on "the scene") A collector can pay attention to this negotiation and infer/deduce who is original (energetic, vocal, militant, chill). Being that immersed (granular) is not for everyone and requires you be "friends" with the artist. The problem with this is that you lose objectivity ("my" artists are the best). Unless you are a sociopath, which could explain things.

4/29/2014 02:29:00 PM  

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