Bauble auctions: something is rotten in the upper reaches of the art market

The spending power of super-rich collectors who are blinded by celebrity is making Old Masters unsaleable while brash works fetch stratospheric prices – and it’s killing a key component in art’s ecosystem

Thu, Jul 31, 2014, 01:00

It had to be star power: how else do you explain the figures fetched at the Christie’s contemporary art auction in New York last May, as $745 million (€554m) was spent on art in 2½ hours, the highest auction total ever. An Andy Warhol sold for $56 million. Groans from the crowd were reported when one bidder tried to add an increment of “just” a quarter of a million to his bid. A mere $250,000? How embarrassing.

Put that in perspective with the failure of a head study by Anthony van Dyck, recently authenticated on Antiques Roadshow, to sell at auction this month. Christie’s had given it an estimate of £300,000-£500,000 (€380,000- €631,800): almost a 10th of the price of Warhol’s Race Riot (1964). Something is rotten in the upper reaches of the art market. What is making Old Masters unsaleable, while brighter art baubles fetch stratospheric prices?

The answer is: celebrity. So why don’t we have a little of that magic stardust in Ireland? And then again, do we actually want it?

The Christie’s auction is part of a trend that is redefining what art is, how it is made and collected. It’s a trend that is sending destructive ripples through the art world, affecting the choices of this year’s graduating art students, and shaping the tastes of people who worry about what sort of art they ought to enjoy.

Mirroring the economic distortions that see the top 1 per cent – the ultra-high-net- worth individuals – owning almost half the world’s wealth, according to Oxfam, the headline-grabbing art market represents a minute proportion of what art really means and is. Yet it is having a disproportionate effect on how the art world operates.


Luck as important as skill

Here’s how things used to work: an artist would graduate, put together exhibitions and events with friends and be selected for a group show or two. If they were one of the lucky ones – luck being just as important as inspiration and skill – they would be picked up by a commercial gallery, which would nurture their careers.

In his insightful book, The Supermodel and the Brillo Box, economist Don Thompson describes how “there are likely to be 15,000 artists walking the streets of London or New York at any one time, calling on dealers and seeking representation”. Those are not great odds.

The gallery, taking an average of 50 per cent commission on sales, pays the rent (their own, not the artist’s), puts on a show for the artist every two years, commissions an essay, hosts a reception, attends art fairs, and wines and dines potential collectors. Despite that 50 per cent, a commercial gallery will lose money on its emerging artists, hoping to make it back as their careers develop. Enter what Thompson describes as the über gallery: the likes of Gagosian, White Cube, Zwirner, with branches around the world and a new habit of poaching the most successful artists from middle-ranking galleries.

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