Art market datapoints of the day

By Felix Salmon
February 7, 2012
Zac Bissonnette for fisking the latest Bloomberg gushery on art funds for me, so I don't have to.

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Many thanks to Zac Bissonnette for fisking the latest Bloomberg gushery on art funds for me, so I don’t have to. This fund isn’t going to produce disappointing returns: it’s probably not even going to get off the ground to begin with. Does Bloomberg’s Scott Reyburn have a clue what “unconfirmed commitments” are? I suspect they’re the fund-world equivalent of vaporware.

But the fact is that the intersection of money and art is a busy place these days. You have what John Powers cleverly calls Spot Markets, for starters — the global Hirst-spot bazaar is in full flower right now. And then there’s that $250 million Cézanne — a figure confirmed by “multiple sources” of Alexandra Peers, and which, as Marion Maneker says, serves to validate other nine-figure prices paid for important works.

Interestingly, the Cézanne is particularly special in that it’s a 19th-Century work: everything else north of $100 million has been 20th Century. This could be the beginning of a relative-value trade, where older masterpieces finally converge in value on the silly prices being paid for modern and contemporary works. Or it could just be an outlier: there are precious few undisputed masterpieces of this sheer size in private hands. The Cézanne is 130 centimeters wide — that’s over 51 inches, which is huge by the artist’s standards. (Some of The Bathers are significantly bigger, but all of those are in museums.) If you want a trophy painting, it’s still the case that you’re going to want something big.

So when Peers quotes the venerable Gary Tinterow describing the Cézanne as “the darkest, the most stripped down and essential” of its series, that’s all well and good — but the real driver of the $250 million price was, I suspect, its square footage.

Alice Gregory has a great piece in the latest n+1 magazine about working at Sotheby’s during the run-up in prices following the 2009 crash. Here’s a taster:

After a few months on the job, I was assigned a new duty—writing the essays that are printed beneath and between the reproduced images in the sale catalogue…

I sprinkled about twenty adjectives (“fey,” “gestural,” “restrained”) amid a small repertory of active verbs (“explore,” “trace,” “question” ). I inserted the phrases “negative space,” “balanced composition,” and “challenges the viewer” every so often. X’s lyrical abstraction and visual vocabulary—which is marked by dogged muscularity and a singular preoccupation with the formal qualities of light—ushered in some of the most important art to hit the postwar market in decades… It was embarrassingly easy, and might have been the only truly dishonest part of the Sotheby’s enterprise. In most ways, the auction house is unshackled from intellectual pretense by its pure attention to the marketplace…

Sotheby’s felt detached from the posturing that happens in Chelsea galleries and the gnomic garbage that counts for art-world conversation. Auction house employees don’t invoke half-remembered poststructuralism or make inapt analogies. They don’t have to. The prices speak for themselves.

We’re in a world right now where distinctions between art and money and value are becoming increasingly blurred, in a way which plays straight into the hands of the nouveau riche and the hedge-fund managers who love to splash millions on big and shiny work. This is a fad, and it will pass, along with former M&A dealmakers who think that owning an expensive art collection gives them the ability to make money flipping paintings on a six-year time horizon. Sociologically, it’s fascinating. But when the crash comes, it’s going to be very, very painful for anybody in the art world who’s gotten used to today’s excesses.

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