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‘What the Heck? We’ll Take a Chance’: Robert Mnuchin and More Talk David Smith

Installation view of Mnuchin's Smith booth at Frieze Masters in October.COURTESY MNUCHIN GALLERY

Installation view of Mnuchin’s Smith booth at Frieze Masters in October.

COURTESY MNUCHIN GALLERY

With absurdly big-money auctions on tap this week in New York, it seems like a nice time to stop and state the very obvious—but heartening!—fact that art-historical importance does not always translate into instant art-market success, and vice-versa. One nice example comes to us from Marion Maneker’s recent podcast about the market for David Smith work, which features the director of the Smith estate, Peter Stevens, and dealers Robert Mnuchin and Sukanya Rajaratnam, of Mnuchin Gallery, which staged a Smith show in their booth at Frieze Masters last month.

David Smith (1906–65) is, of course, one of the 20th century’s greatest sculptors, but if you pop over to Artnet’s database you’ll see that his prices are fairly modest compared to many of his leading contemporaries. Yes, someone paid $23.8 million for a gargantuan work in his prized “Cubi” series in 2005, but the prices quickly drop precipitously from there into the low seven figures. Nothing to scoff at, but hardly impressive.

“The diversity of work doesn’t lend itself towards a market that values metrics of comparable,” Stevens, the estate head, explains on the podcast, “because there’s almost no comparable for any particular work that would come on the market for Smith.” Indeed, Smith created a wide variety of series, which tends to create problems for brand-name-minded collectors, even when an artist’s work is well-represented in museum collections.

And so Mnuchin, Gagosian, and others have been staging Smith shows recently, hoping to juice the artist’s prices. (Here’s how Mnuchin explains his plans to reach out to the Smith estate to do a show: “What the heck? We’ll take a chance.”) Will it work? Only time will tell, but it’s probably not wise to bet against a group of dealers like that.

In any sense, the whole podcast is worth listening to: can’t beat a bunch of machers talking art and business at a high level! Stevens makes a strong and succinct case for just how pivotal and influential a figure Smith is in the story of modernism, and Mnuchin talks pretty frankly about why he stages such juicy historical shows: he wants collectors to provide him with secondary market action. Have a listen.

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