Opinion

Felix Salmon

Dog-cat arbitrage of the day

By Felix Salmon
April 28, 2009

Marion Maneker, on the news that Sotheby’s is auctioning a Giacometti cat:

Le Chat is estimated between $16 and $24 million. One dealer remarked that the Giacometti dogs are $30 million and the cats are generally $10 million but splitting the difference won’t bridge the gap.

In other art-market news, Carol Vogel is noting the rise of private sales as the auction market becomes increasingly dangerous:

Even institutions like the Museum of Modern Art are avoiding auctions. This season it has decided to sell two early classic 1960s paintings by Wayne Thiebaud through Haunch of Venison, a gallery owned by Christie’s. In 2005, when the market was nearing its peak, it sold a variety of works at auction at Christie’s for strong prices.

“There’s an element of uncertainty with an auction that in this climate makes it more prudent to sell privately,” said Ann Temkin, chief curator in the department of painting and sculpture at MoMA. (The Thiebauds were donated to the Modern with the express purpose of selling them to raise cash for future acquisitions.)

There’s some classic art-world fishiness going on here. Why did the owner donate the Thiebauds to MoMA rather than just sell them and donate the proceeds? Firstly, because if you donate the art rather than the proceeds from the sale of the art, you get a certain degree of latitude in determining how much the paintings are worth for tax-writeoff purposes. And secondly, because if it’s MoMA selling the art, rather than a private individual, then the illustrious provenance increases the art’s value — even if the painting has never actually been hung on MoMA’s walls.

I suspect that selling through Haunch of Venison rather than Christie’s proper will decrease the MoMA provenance premium — which only goes to prove how treacherous the auction market is these days. Which raises the question: does MoMA really need to sell the paintings now? Or does it fear that if it doesn’t, then even classic paintings like these will fall even further in price?

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