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Oktoberfest in a Cutthroat Art World: Kenny Schachter at Frieze London

Today’s pal is tomorrow’s plaintiff!

An untitled work by Sigmar Polke from 1998, which sold for£1.06 million ($1.69 million) on a £600,000–£800,000 ($955,000–$1.27 million) estimate at Christie's London.

An untitled work by Sigmar Polke from 1998, which sold for £1.06 million ($1.69 million) on a £600,000–£800,000 ($955,000–$1.27 million) estimate at Christie’s London.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator, and writer. The opinions expressed here are his own.

It must have been an omen of sorts. When I arrived at the extravagant new London headquarters of Phillips auction house last week to preview the house’s inaugural sale there, I was greeted by the slapstick sight of a smartly dressed businessman chasing down the street the banknote with which he’d intended to pay his cab driver. It was one of those typically blustery London days, and a gust of wind had picked up the money, sailing it off into the air and sending the businessman into a manic, comical dance. Try as he might, he couldn’t lasso the errant bill.

This was the start to my Frieze week and, in fact, it’s not a bad metaphor for today’s art market: a mad dash after short-term profits.  From the aisles of the Frieze Art Fair to the auction floor, the theme of London’s annual art Oktoberfest was zero-sum art-o-nomics. Sigmar Polke’s market rose while Gerhard Richter’s appeared to stay on its plateau. Frieze Masters continue to garner rave reviews, while its older sibling, Frieze London, continued to disappoint.

But let’s start with Phillips. If the Marx Brothers sold art they would be known as the Phillips Brothers—more farce than finance. The house’s airy, ample new premises, unequivocally the best in London, weren’t enough to lift its overall performance to the level of basic professionalism. Before the sale even began, Phillips shot itself in the foot by staging a non-selling exhibition smack in the middle of the salesroom. This folly only served to drive home the fact that Phillips will in all probability never be able to secure the kind of A-list works so prominently displayed but so conspicuously not on offer: prime pieces by Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, and even Anthony Caro, not exactly the most difficult to procure. What an auspicious start—and it only got worse.

When are four Marilyns less than none? When it’s the title of the Andy Warhol cover lot that failed to elicit a single bid (not even from the Mugrabis), no revelation as it was even worse in person than it appeared in the catalogue. And when a Gerhard Richter came up, not a single paddle raised in the room. Call for help? No use, I couldn’t even get a phone signal in the gleaming basement salesroom, and I wasn’t the only one struggling for a lifeline. Then it got worse, still.

I got a call from Deep Pockets, my art-world version of Watergate’s Deep Throat, a plugged-in market maker who serves as my go-to source for the juiciest behind-the-scenes tidbits. I was informed that at least half the phone banks, where Phillips’s specialists take bids from clients, were actually not functioning over the course of the evening sale and the specialists were engaged in nothing more than play-acting. If this is true, it’s yet more art-world shenanigans that confirm my long-held belief that it’s okay to buy at Phillips, but better to sell from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, or eBay for that matter. New Phillips CEO Ed Dolman, the former international chairman of Christie’s and executive of the Qatar Museums Authority, has his work cut out for him. One has to wonder if art is even the right business for this firm.

Phillips’ bloodbath, which extended from night into day (sale), had many of today’s hot, young market highfliers appearing to suffer from premature aging disease, including (very) recently made works by David Ostrowski, Kour Pour, Christian Rosa, Lucien Smith, and Mark Flood. (Speaking of Rosa, I can’t wait to see his next Jay Jopling show after he declared in no uncertain terms to Deep Pockets, not once but twice, that it will be ten times better than David Hammons’s present outing at the gallery. Good luck!)

Back at Christie’s and Sotheby’s it all began to feel like auction season again rather than an indiscriminate slaughterhouse. Sigmar Polke was always punching above his weight talent-wise, but from a lower weight class than Richter. After the latest spate of sales Polke was firmly established as the (historic and market) heavyweight he’s always been, reaching in excess of $8 million for a work from the guaranteed Essl collection, his second highest at auction. In the process, Richter appeared to take a little drubbing at the hand of Polke’s newfound pricing prowess. Don’t get me wrong, Richter is still up about 500 percent in not much more than 5 years, but in the art world’s micro-short attention span, yesterday’s records are today’s amnesia. In any event, look for Christie’s November sale in New York to equal or surpass their greatest auction result ever, the $745 million achieved last May.

On to the fairgrounds, Frieze London, the original event that’s been under the bigtop in Regent’s Park annually since 2003, left a soggy and bland taste this year, as though it had outgrown its defining edginess and now has the shtick of any other ordinary commercial expo. A highlight was one of the random, non-market driven projects thrown into the mix in a grasp at creative credibility. Jonathan Berger reassembled fragments from Andy Kaufman’s personal life and career. Inside the standalone booth, a woman jumped up to greet me like a longtime friend to speak about (the other) Andy, all part of the performance. If only some of the participants in the fair would behave in such fashion, the art world would be a kinder, gentler place.

Guston at McKee Gallery's Frieze Masters booth.

Guston at McKee Gallery’s Frieze Masters booth.

Across the park, Frieze Masters, in its second year, presented a much fresher array of artworks across a wider historical divide. This event was characterized by a lack of pretense (if that’s possible in art today) and, above all else, was a lot easier on the eyes. There was a Gauguin wood carving that once stood sentry outside the artist’s Tahitian home, on offer at London’s Lefevre Fine Art for $25 million, a mere pittance compared to a piece of Wool. There were Judd stacks from $5.5 million to $6.5 million at David Zwirner and Paula Cooper; and who would rather be anywhere else than surrounded by the Philip Gustons at David McKee?

Whenever an Old Master booth sandwiched between the more prevalent classic contemporary galleries had an actual masterpiece on hand (or famous names associated with masterworks), like the £38 million Rembrandt at Otto Nauman or Peter Paul Rubens, they were distinguished by enormous gold scripted signage. You could be forgiven for thinking these were single-artist shows rather than single marginal examples of both in what amounted to attempts to smack some awareness into the heads of the typically shortsighted contemporary art tourist.

But outside the circus tents the talk was all about the market, and the accusations continued to fly, seemingly more bombastic, aggressive, and snide than ever before, pitting flippers against flippers, dealers against collectors (and vice-versa), and lawyers laughing all the way to Christie’s, because who’d put their money in a bank at zero-percent interest? Like Ronald P. and Larry G., too often today’s pal is tomorrow’s plaintiff in an art world ever more resembling a cage fight than the decorous, intergenerational, relationship-oriented business of the past. Then again, even legendary dealers like Joseph Duveen and Ernst Beyeler were known to have thrown down the gloves chasing a deal, straddling both buy and sell sides—conflict, what conflict? The song remains the same.

I can even recall when, if you wanted to buy an unproven work of art for behind the couch or over the bed, you didn’t have to sign over your first born or multiple clauses surrendering your resale right in perpetuity should you ever, god forbid, change your mind. A well-known Parisian purveyor of younger art goes on the attack confronting her clients if they so much as think about selling. She appears to get a premonition from the ether, and then you get the nastiest of letters complaining about your lack of ethics and impending blacklisting from the gallery.

But rather than art buyers being concerned with restrictive clauses in gallery invoices, i.e. providing dealers rights of first refusal and buyer proscriptions against auctioning, collectors of contemporary should be up in arms that there aren’t warnings about what will happen if they can’t resell. Business cycles for some contemporary artists nowadays seem to span days rather than quarters.

Oh, and did you hear the one about the devilishly demeaning dealer better suited to work as an S&M dominator (it’s a he) who just might reside in a Scandinavian country? A collector passed his email on to me:

Dealer: “I am afraid (your collection) presents itself without a sense of purpose and that we will not be able to make the collection a priority. In all fairness, I am an eager supporter of not wasting my time or the time of others, and having looked at the online presentation I find that the decisions you’ve made so far provide a context that is not the right one for these artists. It may be that the collection is not set up as an investment fund or to give it the appearance of a Philips auction catalogue, but it tells a fairly sad story of what is generally sold today and what will hopefully sell for more tomorrow. Best of luck with building whatever collection you want, but we will unfortunately be unable to contribute to that. All the best”

At least he signed off with a friendly salutation, but I thought the Studio 54 door policy days died with disco. When I posted this email on my Facebook, activist investor Dan Loeb weighed in: “What a shocker SHOCKER. Next thing you’ll tell me is that there’s gambling in Casablanca.” For me, it’s not the arrogance that’s shocking, but its depths.

Because art has truly hit the bigtime. Have you seen the start-up selling art like penny shares? The telephone pitch: “You mean you’re not invested in art yet?” Lately there have been Internet scams involving art deals so we surely must have arrived. I got screwed over by a double-dealing relative who’d asked for my help in selling a painting. Being around a marketable painting today is like being in front of a gram of coke in the ’70s, back when it was still a novelty, and an expensive one at that. As the classic-car universe rises in lockstep with art, so does the bad behavior, where rumor and innuendo amount to market fact. When you get a car cheaply after a lousy auction they say you bought it well. Sound familiar?

Everyone and their grandmother want in on the deals, and just as well. At present, with connoisseurship having apparently gone the way of the Dodo bird, it’s no longer critics, dealers, or committed collectors who serve as kingpins in cementing careers, rather it’s algorithm-driven black-box trading models and the Leo Factor, as in the latest acquisitions of Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse of celebrity cohorts. The sharp verdicts of the eye have given way to word of mouth.

Now it’s on to the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporarin (FIAC) in Paris. Fair fatigue? C’est la vie.

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