Price Check is a weekly column that looks into the price of works currently on view at commercial galleries. Have they sold? For how much? Are either or both of these answers shocking compared to the amount the works sold for at auction? The “truth in pricing” law—NY Code-Subchapter 2, which can be viewed in full here—states that all items for sale in New York must have a price tag conspicuously displayed. Galleries don’t always do this, but that’s not the point. The point is simply to ask about the price and see what happens.
Blinky Palermo at David Zwirner
When I arrived at David Zwirner—the West 20th Street building—there was a woman sitting on a bench near the front window. She was staring out ahead at a building that (I learned later) had housed a medium-security women’s prison until 2012, when its inmates were evacuated just before Hurricane Sandy hit and were never returned due to budgetary reasons. In a room next door, two men—one youngish, the other with gray hair that matched hers—chatted exuberantly.
As David Zwirner’s highly anticipated follow-up to his “Palermo: Works on Paper 1976-1977” show in 2013, this exhibition features the German artist’s creations during a three-year period from 1973 to 1976. Paintings and large-scale drawings of geometric shapes—some painted colorfully, some merely sketched in graphite—are presented for the first time since their 1974 debut at Heiner Friedrich’s New York outpost.
Palermo’s works—especially his oil-on-canvas-on-wood polygons—have consistently sold on the high end of, or surpassed, their estimate, sometimes astonishingly so. For this experiment, I chose the gold counterpart to Palermo’s black triangle titled Rechter Winkel, which was estimated to sell in a range of $300,000 to $400,000 at Sotheby’s London in 2013. (The work didn’t sell). As I approached the front desk, I saw the golden triangle on a Blinky Palermo poster near the front desk. I can definitively report its retail price, at least: $20.
“How much is that painting?” I asked.
“That’s on loan from a private gallery,” the gallery assistant on my right answered (there are always two guarding the front), with machinelike efficiency.
“Are there any available for sale?”
“Most of them aren’t.”
“Which ones are?”
“Not very many.”
We continued on like this for another moment, humorlessly, and then she picked up the phone.
She was transferred a couple of times. While I waited, I watched the woman on the bench. She was still gazing serenely out ahead, not appearing to have moved at all.
The assistant gave me a fountain pen and asked me to write my email address on an incidental pad of paper nearby. “[REDACTED] isn’t here,” she said as way of explanation.
“Do you think she would be able to get back to me fairly soon?” I asked meekly.
“I don’t know. She isn’t here.”
And that was pretty much that. I’m not holding my breath, refreshing my inbox. I did come across a New York Times article from 2013 titled “As Art Values Rise, So Do Concerns About Market’s Oversight.” Apparently the writers had undertaken a similar experiment with familiar results:
Perhaps nothing illustrates the art market’s laissez-faire spirit better than the way galleries flout New York City’s “truth in pricing” law. It says items for sale, including art, must have a price tag conspicuously displayed. None of 10 galleries visited at random this month had posted prices, though a few smaller ones produced price lists when asked….
At the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea a woman at the front desk seemed indignant when asked if she had a price list.
“I do not,” she said.
Same assistant, I wonder?
Andrea Rosen’s main gallery has the same street number as David Zwirner—525—but is four blocks ahead on West 24th Street. The coincidence felt vaguely lucky. Three new Schnabel paintings are featured in the Alison Gingeras-curated, imprimatur-themed show, “Enigmas,” along with works by Martin Barré, David Ostrowski, and Reena Spauldings. They’re pretty large. I walked in, took a 270-degree look around, and walked back to the front desk.
“Have any Schnabel paintings been sold? And if so, for how much?”
“I think the prices range from 250-325.”
“Thousand, you mean?”
“Yes. Oh just a second,” said the gallery assistant a bit nervously, rifling through some papers. “I’m so sorry. Let me just try to find…”
“Oh my God, no problem,” I said, happily typing the numbers into my phone.
“Yes, so the two priced at 250 [thousand] have been sold, and the painting that’s left—“ holographic dashes of color on a slate-gray background—“is 325 [thousand]. I hope that helps?”
Bless her and her gratuitous apologies! The prices were somewhat higher than Schnabel’s median, which falls somewhere in the hundred thousands, but believable; his painting 800 Blows sold for nearly $1.25 million at Sotheby’s in May 2014.
I left feeling cunning.
At 980 Madison, between East 76th and 77th Streets, I took an elevator up to Venus Over Manhattan on the third floor, where “From Pop to Punk: Peter Saul” is now on view. Saul’s cartoonish pen-on-acrylic paintings from the ’60s and ’70s have names like Sex Deviate Being Executed and The Crucifixion of Angela Davis, and are scribbly in form and neon in palette.
Last year, Saul’s painting American Soldier Returns to Wife was estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 at Christie’s New York, and on the whole his recent sales have been flying under $100,000, with the occasional work going for triple that amount.
Asked how much the paintings were selling for, a gallery assistant said, “Oh, you know,” pursing her lips and squinting a little. She didn’t continue.
“Could you tell me which paintings have sold?”
“Mmm,” she said, looking around.
“Are the paintings all on loan from private galleries?”
“All except three.”
“I…can’t,” she said finally. “We really try to honor our clients’ privacy.”
We stared at each other for a second, both sort of grinning apologetically. I shifted my weight to my right leg. “Um—“ I started.
“Let me give you my email,” she said quickly, walking to her desk. “You can ask more questions about the exhibition, and I can maybe forward it to my colleagues.”
It was a clever move. Email would allow me to ask more brazenly, just as it would allow her to refuse more freely—an inverted case of mutually assured destruction. She did respond to my email, swiftly, firmly, and with a gracious dash of obtuseness. Her last paragraph read: “Thank you for your interest regardless. Please be in touch with [REDACTED] cc’d here who can send you any press materials that you may need if you are planning to print a piece on the show.” CCs led to CCs, which resulted in a couple publicists congratulating me on my visit the next day, asking if I was planning to review the show.