Category Archives: The Art Market

Watching the Art Market

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The Artist’s Studio. 1870. Jean-Frederic Bazille. Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The distance between the art student, the practicing artist, the gallerist and the collector/investor often seems so vast that it’s hard to believe they are all part of the same ecosystem. But of course they are, the product of a complex interlocking network of ideas, preferences, cultural values, economies and desires. Once was a time when artists stacked up their finished canvases in a corner of their studio. If they were lucky enough to be shown in a gallery, then the gallery got a cut, but often enough collectors or art-lovers visited the studio, had a glass or two of absinthe, paid some cash to the artist and walked out with the painting. Perhaps, as in Bazille’s amazing painting (above) a gentleman played piano while the negotiations were in progress.

OK, it’s an oversimplification. But the idea of a “quality” artist selling from their studio is now almost unthinkable. The link between artist and seller is so distant that many artists have no idea who currently “owns” their work. If they do meet up, over a glass of Cristal at a glamorous dinner party perhaps, it’s because the artist too has become a celebrity. Many successful artists never see their works again because they are consigned to storage as part of an investment strategy. Did you know that if you buy art as part of your superannuation you are not allowed to look at it? It must be locked away somewhere, otherwise you are getting a benefit from it before you are allowed to. You have to be sixty and retire first. Crazy!  Strict rules govern investment in SMSH’s

A good artist has to have a gallery. Galleries compete for artists, but only if they sell, and especially if they have a rising reputation. Once with a gallery, the artist is no longer free to sell from their studio. They can give paintings away as gifts, of course, but even that is frowned upon. For decades this was the accepted system: an artist, a gallery, a buyer. In the secondary market, where art is on-sold from its first purchaser, auctions were the norm, but there were also private sales.

This was a fairly stable process until round about the 1990s. Then, in a strange contortion of late global capitalism, the rise of the super-elites, including traditional oligarchs, real-estate tycoons, movie stars and glamorous celebrities with infinite wealth saw the system change.

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Neo Rauch’s 1998 painting Etappe. Bought by Brad Pitt at Art Basel for one million US in 2009.  David Zwirner and Galerie Eigen Art, Berlin/Leipzig.

There were new players awash with funds from the “developing” economies: China, Brazil, India. And with the end of so-called communism funds were flooding around the globe and into the hands of gangsters and various versions of Mafia with their new-style goon squads: armies of suited accountants and investment managers. Gazillions of dollars went into superannuation funds which had to give a decent yield.

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Three stock market indices: US$

Periodic panics emerged, as they always do in a capitalist system. Stock markets rose and fell, raw materials markets collapsed, industrial work moved off-shore to low cost countries and then their bloated and unbalanced economies went off the rails. Democratic systems stalled. Military rule came back. Nothing was stable.

Where then could the super-rich, or their financial managers, deposit their gotten (ill or otherwise) gains?

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Pablo Picasso’s ” Dora Maar au chat” is auctioned by Tobias Meyer at Sotheby’s New York during the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale 03 May 2006. The painting sold for USD 85 million. AFP PHOTO/Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Aha! The art market! What a great idea. Original works of art are just that: original. Walter Benjamin put his finger right on the pulse when he wrote about the aura of the art work in the age of mechanical reproduction. [It is worth reading and re-reading this work – so prescient, yet he had no idea in the 1930s how it would unfold].

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http://www.slideshare.net.  John Eckman #wcnyc2014

The magic is that you cannot duplicate an original work of art. You can make prints of it, of course. Or someone can try forging it. But in the end there can one authentic example of each work, and only a limited number from each artist especially when the artist is dead.

Artists become superstars. A dizzying variety of choices emerge, some of them hard to “collect”, as in the best-known works of Tracey Emin. Tracey recently married a rock in a formal ceremony and they are reported to be very happy.

Dinner In Honor Of Tracey Emin Hosted By Phillips In The Cecconi's Garden At Soho Beach House
Tracey Emin dinner hosted by Phillips and Vanity Fair at Cecconi’s at Soho Beach House on December 3, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida, to celebrate her wedding.

A dense supporting cast in the art world decide which works are important, which styles are great, which fashions are in. The art market itself slides in its preferences from time to time. How to invest in the right pieces? Let the market decide, it is capitalism after all.

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The Mei Moses index – reproduced under the terms of fair dealing for purposes of study and research.

And so the glamour auction houses emerged in the main cities of global capitalism: London, New York, Hong Kong. Lesser markets emerged in outliers: Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver, wherever there were funds to be invested and profits to be made. Some great books have been written about the world of the auction house. I mentioned some time ago the wonderful film of Isaac Julien, with its glimpses of the art market and interview with one of the main players in the British art market. Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME.

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Isaac Julien: portrait with still from Playtime 2013

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I will add shortly the titles of some books and articles I have really enjoyed, including some fiction.

So here we are today. The profound impulse to make and enjoy art has been ripped away from its base in local cultures and economies. The new Global Art Market is a dizzying beast. In the next few posts I will be looking at some recent trends and think about what it all means for the ordinary artist in backwaters like Australia.

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Roy Lichtenstein. “Oh, All Right”. Sold at auction for $42.6 million in 2010.

 

Gerhard Richter and the market for German Art

 

Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.
Gerhard Richter: Portrait by Lothar Wolleh. Wikimedia Commons.

More thoughts on the Germans.  Gerhard Richter is by far the leader in the top ten most expensive living German artists.  But even leaving Richter aside, German art, particularly painting, is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popularity among international collectors. Alexander Forbes writing for Artnet News in April 2014 reported that the power of German art in the market has actually increased since the 2008 recession. There is no sign of it slowing down. Richter himself believes the market for art generally, and for his own art in particular, has gone crazy.  Richter criticizes the art market.

Forbes suggests that German art’s penchant for “stringent conceptualism and a highly art historical approach likely proves a safe bet for value retention regardless of economic conditions.

I want to hold that idea. It suggests that art which reflects both conceptual thought – a philosophical element – as well as an embedded engagement with history is likely to hold its value best. On this analysis the German art market is likely to continue to ever higher peaks.

Richter’s mysterious  Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) painted in 1968 during the height of his blurred monochrome period sold recently for $37,125,000 at Sotheby’s 2013 contemporary art sale. His paintings hold the first 53 places on the top achieving auction sales of German art, 33 achieving over $10 million.

 

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Auction house employees pose for the photographers in front of a 1968 oil on canvas painting by artist Gerhard Richter, entitled: ‘Domplatz, Mailand’ (Cathedral Square, Milan), in central London, Friday, April 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The range of Richter’s work is astonishing. Probably best known for his “blurred monochromes” of the 1960s, his abstract works have also taken on a special aura of mystery, seeming to move away from figuration and narrative completely. You really need to read Richter’s own writings (which are extensive) to get an idea of what he is thinking in this strand of his work, which seemingly just gets better and better. Cage 5, 2006, (below) is a vastly large oil painting reflecting back on his early vision, yet imbued with endless hints and depths of experience which could be landscape or water-surface or a close-up of a lot of brushstrokes – something he also explored in the 1980s. But he invites us to think of a cage, and that opens up a whole different set of associations.

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Gerhardt Richter  Cage 5, 2006

The sheer scale of Richter’s work is entrancing, but so is the sense of our shared collective history, that mid-twentieth century Europe with its horrors and excesses which he opens up to us from the 1960s on.  Neo Rauch, my second favourite German artist, does the same, although it a totally different way. You can read my academic article on Neo Rauch here.Neo Rauch Post Socialist Vision, Collective Memories

It is overwhelming in so many ways to enter the Richterian world. Fortunately it is also easy, as Richter’s own website is an absolute miracle of clarity, order and revelation. You can find  (almost) anything he has ever done there, complete with full references, links to written and audio discussions and interviews, the ability to zoom in onto details, and the complete presentation of his Atlas project, which really is no more than a full record of every image he has collected (or photographed) in his life. Explore the miracle of Richter’s work here.

Unbelievably there is almost nothing of Richter’s art in pubic collections in Australia. The AGNSW at least made some effort and holds three items, a painted monochrome sphere from 1989, a photograph from 1967, and his strange version of a nude descending a staircase, titled Ema, from 1992.

The Art Gallery of South Australia holds one of his luminous abstracts (Abstraktes Bild) from 1977 (Catalogue Raisonne: 424). * (Eric Clapton sold another in the Abstraktes Bild series for 21.3 million British pounds in 2013). One of Richter’s finest 1990’s abstracts CR:752-3, 1990, 225 x 200cm) is held in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, purchased with corporate funding assistance from Westpac Bank,  and the NGA in 2003 purchased Juno, oil on canvas 300 x 250 (NGA 2004.2).Richter’s 1995 Abstract at the NGV

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Sold by Eric Clapton: Abstraktes Bild at  Sotheby’s for 21.3 million

Gerhard Richter’s work is now so valuable that there will be little or no opportunity to ever acquire it in Australia. Should public collections in Australia be more open to contemporary work from outside Australia? Why German artists, and not those from Romania, Holland, or wherever?  Should we just focus on local art and artists and make a kind of nationalist stand? This might be a valid position but when you consider the extent of Australian gallery holdings of recent American and UK artists you just cannot help but conclude that the good old neo-colonial world order underpins every level of public culture, including public art. Sensible use of public assets or parochialism and subservience to a highly limited Anglophone culture sphere?

*Strangely though this rare work hardly features on the Gallery’s site. No image of it is available there. It has been shown only once in public as part of the exhibition “Making Nature: Masters of Early European Landscape Art” (June-September 2009). Why it was included in that collection is a mystery as Richter can hardly be considered “early” and this painting is very far from one of his landscapes. An image of it is available on Richter’s website – just click on the “Abstracts” collection with the CR number 424.