Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator, and writer. The opinions expressed here are his own.
I am convinced that the art market is in an extended bull run the likes of which have never been seen before. Sure, nothing goes up forever, but we are experiencing fundamentals fostering the fever to buy more art at ever escalating prices. A qualified investor can bag interest rates of less than 1 percent for a 10-year fixed mortgage; oil has plummeted, squeezing the industry but fueling other businesses like automotive and aerospace; and as the euro loses ground against the dollar, it only ramps up the U.S.’s spending power.
This currency scenario could stand as an analogy for the art world, where we can experience pockets of recession in individual artists’ prices as others rise in a zero-sum knee-jerk reaction. Take, for example, Leipzig. Does anyone remember Leipzig? That school of up-to-the-minute painters selling for loads of money with accompanying waiting lists? It now accounts for no more than a string of buy-ins at an auction near you.
There’s still plenty of money awash in the global economy, and with the continued unsteadiness in so many areas, like the stock markets and commodities, art looks better and better to the international money set that make up today’s market when it’s the norm to have 40 countries represented at any given Impressionist/modern or contemporary auction. There are more billionaires than ever, and at the expense of sounding piggish, the concentration of wealth only contributes to further bumping up prices and demand. But with every uptick, there is a commensurate downside, and in the case of art there is a backlash brewing against the epic paradigm shift of viewing art through money goggles.
As a result of the above and the widening gap between the haves and have nots, the art market has become the latest battlefield, with calls for regulation amidst a questioning of the morals and ethics of the super rich. Enter “The Future of the Art World: Culture and Commerce in the 21st Century,” a panel at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January. Moderated by the Financial Times, the panel had representatives from the private and public museum worlds and art fairs, but it was rock-star-economist of the moment Nouriel Roubini who grabbed the headlines.
With zero ostensible experience or particular expertise on art or the market, two things that might have come in handy in a discussion of both, Roubini lamented the lack of regulation, blasting alleged insider trading, money laundering, and tax evasion, which he claimed were all rife in today’s art world. I couldn’t help but wonder where he’d drawn the facts to conjure such sweeping accusations. It made me question the underpinnings of the so-called science of economics altogether. As far as regulating the art market, I’d paraphrase Nancy Reagan: Just say no! Art deals are governed by uniform commercial codes that dictate fair trade, fiduciary duties, and agency relationships that proscribe fraud and misrepresentation, applicable to dealing in art or anything else. Enough said.
I am Los Angeles illiterate, having spent only a few days there more than 20 years ago but a few weeks ago I headed out to the sixth edition of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, a fair located in a hangar at the still-functioning Santa Monica Airport. I’d heard a lot of chatter about L.A.’s burgeoning art scene, and wanted to see what it was all about.
The fair itself was a minor event, a trendy, international version of a local affordable art fair. More interesting were my visits to museums, galleries, artists and private dealers.
My first meeting was with private dealer and former gallerist Niels Kantor. Niels’s father, the gallerist Paul Kantor, set up shop in L.A. in 1940 and worked with the likes of Diebenkorn, Motherwell, and Rothko; I can only imagine what the gallery landscape was like at the time—there must have been more tumbleweeds than collectors.
As it turned out, Niels’s house, where he does his deal-making, was just steps from my hotel, so we did something unusual for L.A.: we walked there. En route, Kantor, thin and wiry, pointed out the blood orange sunset “What do you see?” He asked. There was only one conceivable answer: an Alex Israel sky painting.
Next up, a certain Mr. Stefan Simchowitz. His modest house, crammed with art and people, resembled an art commune with its proprietor and fearless leader speechifying like Che Guevara about the overthrow of a system even more oppressive than capitalist exploitation: the gallery system, and what he sees as its chief protagonists, Gavin Brown and Michele Maccarone. The self-styled art activist is fighting a guerrilla war of his own devising, replete with a band of apostles, albeit in his case an army of six-foot-tall brunette beauties.
Simcho is behind the Rome-based Depart Foundation, which recently opened an L.A. space. Depart is, according to its website, “actively engaged in the field of art production…acquisition and encouraging artists to develop…” On view during my visit were paintings by 28-year-old market-darling Kour Pour, who has appropriated images of Persian rugs “directly … from auction and museum catalogues.” The paintings are priced at $200,000 apiece; with an auction record of $85,000, I couldn’t think of a more effective way of killing off an artist before he is born. In any event, I am a fan of anyone entering the fray with a distinct voice and point of view, even if it’s a not entirely rational one. Simcho’s voice is thundering and I, for one, welcome it.
Before I get to last week’s contemporary auctions in London, a bit of auction-related gossip from my old friend and reliable source Deep Pockets.
For purposes of conservation in museums, restorers developed a system of lighting effects to return the vividness and sharpness of pigments ravaged by time, thus demanding significantly less restorative invasiveness. Flashback to the New York May sales where there was a major Warhol portrait on offer. Word quickly spread, about as swiftly as this work had been shopped on the market prior to the sale, that the house employed the use of lighting filters to alter the color of the faded (hence damaged) painting. The work was withdrawn prior to sale. What will they think of next? Don’t answer.
Here’s more. I only recently got a call from Deep Pockets that back in 2012, he bought a secondary-market Nate Lowman from a dealer who had bought it from a collector who had bought it at a charity auction at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery sometime around 2005, shortly after the work was made—are you still with me? The Lowman in question was two of his signature bullet hole impressions silkscreened on a circular piece of stretched denim.
Deep somehow managed to get bored with this acquisition and determined to sell the piece through Christie’s February day sale last week, with an estimate of £20,000 to £30,000 ($30,000 to $45,000). (He’d bought it for $45,000; it’s a common strategy at auction to entice bidders with low estimates.)
Not long after the catalogues were published and the works put on presale display, Christie’s received an email from Nate Lowman’s New York gallery, Maccarone, that said, “Nate stated he did not make this artwork. He never signed this painting, and will under no circumstances authenticate this artwork.”
This was interesting, as Pockets had related to me that he’d met Nate in Paris a few years back, when the artist was unveiling his interpretation of the iconic Converse Chuck Taylor basketball sneakers laden with his silkscreen impressions ($25,000 a pop). At the time, Pockets said, they spoke about the specific bullet hole painting in question, to which Lowman apparently replied, “Rad, man” and said he would sign the painting, though that never came to pass.
I neither condone short-term buying and selling nor condemn it; it simply is, and it helps the art world go round by relieving bottlenecking in an artist’s market when there is not enough work to go around. And it’s better than the alternative, i.e. no demand. But what was Maccarone attempting to achieve, other than control for the sake of control? In an age when artists and spec-u-lectors rule the roost from free agency (playing dealers against each other) and private museums to day trading buy/sell strategies, this smells like nothing more than a last grasp at exerting control.
Maccarone got Christie’s to pull the Lowman, but Pockets was hardly left high and dry. The dealer who’d supplied him with the Lowman in the first place reimbursed him for it; look for those bullet holes to reenter the stream of commerce soon. Since when does the artist’s (or dealer’s) intent figure into the equation?
The question on everyone’s mind in London last week was: are the auction house tides shifting? Sotheby’s performance was the story: the house eclipsed Christie’s in contemporary art not by much but by a margin enough to show what could very well be a crack in Christie’s hegemony. These things can change in a heartbeat.
The biggest Sotheby’s coup was for a Gerhard Richter. Richter celebrated his 83rd birthday a few days before his monster-scaled squeegeed abstract painting fetched $46.3 million, a new record for his work at auction. The bids were rolling in in highly unorthodox increments of two million dollars at times—was seasoned auctionista Cheyenne Westphal blushing?—and the work was knocked down to gasps and applause mainly due to the exchange of such a vast sum of money. It made the hair stand up on my arms (for all the wrong reasons). Though the painting was kind of ho-hum, dating from the mid-’80s, it was 10 feet tall—apparently size does matter. No doubt such a trophy will elicit a few “Wow, is that a Richter?”-type comments at the next cocktail party.
Each season, a few newbie market darlings are invited to the auction party, and this time it was Jonas Wood. A Wood painting depicting a partial view of his studio soared past its £70,000–£90,000 estimate to make £365,000 ($493,177), ten times his previous record. The result spurred the up-and-coming spec-u-collector seated next to me to mutter, “I didn’t much like the work before, but I like it now.” Inspired.
The other heavy-hitters at the London auctions were the catalogues, massive, tree-sapping tomes that would cause serious physical harm if used as weapons. On the evening of the sale, to save collectors bearing the burdens of these monstrosities, the houses distribute miniature versions that resemble prayer books. After watching one famous collector of Warhols and Basquiats methodically rock back and forth in his chair, I thought for a moment that I was in a religious service.
At Sotheby’s I glimpsed an (over) active market participant bidding on a Twombly painting on paper and more than one Polke painting on paper. Not long ago, I’d asked this same person about a Twombly work on paper, to which he responded, smugly and snootily, “Don’t forget, it’s still only paper.” Sometimes the art market manages to warm the cockles of my heart.
Speaking of Twombly, Eric Clapton seems to have caught the flipping bug after parting with his Richter triptych for countless profits, but this time via his recently-bought Twombly. The results were as tepid as his last album: the 1960 work, estimated at £4 million–£6 million sold for £4 million ($6.2 million).
Not everything was sunny at Sotheby’s. A dark, early ’60s Rauschenberg failed to sell. Before the sale, a flailing specialist had tried to market the piece to Pockets with the line: “But it’s like a Christopher Wool or a Wade Guyton.” The steal of the week? Twombly. In the wake of Twombly’s scribbles making $60 million at auction in New York, back in May, a number of works by him have come to market. At Sotheby’s London, there was a stunning 1970 oil, wax crayon and pencil on card, not so distinct from the scrawls on paper that have made nearly $6 million; the card piece sold for only $1.5 million.
Otherwise, Sotheby’s sale was ho-hum. As per usual, there was the gnawing urge to leave, but guilt and fear of missing out kept me bound to my seat. After the sale, a noted New York dealer was seen, paddle still glued to hand, parading around a renowned restaurant as if he’d have to bid for his steak. Or to ensure the rest of us knew what he’d been up to, the art world equivalent of “I coulda been a contender.”
Anticipation giving way to tedium is par for the course at auctions. Before the sale at Christie’s you could have been pecked to death trying to hold seats, as I tried to do, waiting for two of my kids to join. (I prefer forcing this religion down their throats to others.) Soon the presale buzz and excitement dissipated, supplanted by a businesslike drone. And the star lot was…Twombly again. A blackboard work sold for $30 million. Deep Pockets’ spin on this transaction added a dimension. When is $30 million not $30 million? When Christie’s, at the last second, gets a consignment that was going to go to Sotheby’s, with the lure of a higher guarantee (said to be $35 million) that then proves unattainable and results in a $5 million loss. This can’t go on forever, can it? But Asian specialist Xin Li was still accounting for a sizable portion of the night’s proceeds: god forbid she ever falls ill during a sale—the whole market could be in for a violent hiccup.
Phillips merits a passing mention: they beat their catastrophic inaugural sale results last October at their gleaming new headquarters by fully 70 percent, but you get the impression they are still woefully missing something, like a single great piece of art after all these years. Besides a record of more than $4 million for what amounted to an Ai Weiwei golden charm bracelet of tabletop Zodiac heads in an edition of 12 (counting proofs), the big news at Phillips this time around was phone connectivity.
Generally the day sales are uneventful, workmanlike affairs—even more so in London than New York. These events are where markets are made for non-market-proven artists, where an “early work” often means it was made a year ago. Perhaps because they are relatively low-stakes affairs, these sales bring out some off-color elements. Overheard on the selling floor: “Your wife asked me if I’d rather a Christian Rosa or Lucien Smith to which I replied she might as well have asked whether I’d rather Ebola or malaria.” A noted female specialist manning the phone banks at one auction house to a vacillating collector: “C’mon get your balls out.” But these sales suffer no fools, as evidenced by a Sam Taylor-Johnson (née Wood) photo that couldn’t even sell at a charity benefit to help Goldsmiths arts college, not even the feel-good factor helped—call it 50 shades of no way.
Back to our beloved rabble-rouser Simcho, who appeared for the first time on the closely watched Baer Faxt, which for nearly 20 years has been tracking successful bidders, and, more importantly for its art dealer readers, the underbidders who didn’t get what they wanted. Baer stands perched over the audience for the duration of the sales, noting names of participants; his Faxt is seen as a barometer for who is active in particular markets. But Simcho was nowhere to be seen in the audience, which begs the question, how or why was he included on the list? Stefan, are you proactively intervening, trying to grow beyond the perception of a babysitter for wayward emerging artists?
The art market has gained remarkable traction over the past decade as the kingmaker of quality for some, but for most of us it’s only one indicator of value. Art today is as good as it’s ever been—you just need to look hard enough. The market flourishes, then it doesn’t, then it does again.