Auction-house opacity datapoint of the day

March 13, 2012
Greg Allen has a fascinating reports on a monochrome painting which went unsold at Christie's last week.

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Greg Allen has a fascinating report on a monochrome painting which went unsold at Christie’s last week. It had originally appeared in Christie’s auction catalogue under the authorship of “Henry Codax”, with this explanation:

Henry Codax, a pseudonym created by New York-based artist Jacob Kassay and the Swiss conceptual artist Olivier Mosset, is referenced from a fictional character in the contemporary novel Reena Spaulings published in 2005… In the present example, Kassay’s iconic silvery paintings have been replaced by a sleek, anonymous grey surface. Stripping away any obvious authorship, Kassay and Mosset’s Henry Codax joins the company of fictional and pseudonymous artists including Marcel Duchamp’s Rrose Selavy and Richard Prince’s John Dogg.

That’s an unambiguous statement of fact: “Henry Codax” is a pseudonym created by Kassay and Mosset. But Christie’s provides no sourcing for that fact, and Kassay’s gallery is on the record as saying that they know nothing of Henry Codax.

Kassay has, as Allen puts it, a “hyper-speculative Kassay auction market”: that is, if a Kassay comes up for auction, many people will be bidding on it just because they think that Kassay is a star whose works are going to rise sharply in value. So if Codax is Kassay, the Codax painting, estimated at a modest $10,000 to $15,000, could be a highly lucrative investment. (Kassay is shooting up the hot-young-artists league table, with $1.8 million of auction sales to date, at the age of 28.)

So I was a little surprised to see that the Codax had been bought in at auction: that no one was willing to spend even $10,000 for a huge, 7-foot-square piece described by Allen as “the awesomest” painting that Codax ever made. (Admittedly, there aren’t all that many of these things.) What happened? Allen got on the case:

Someone who attended the sale told me that Christie’s had read a statement, known as a saleroom note, before the sale, in which Kassay said he’d “had nothing to do with” the painting, and that his “name should not be associated with it.” [In trying to confirm the text of the actual statement, I contacted Christie’s, first as press, and then finally as client. The specialist who worked on the lot was helpful, if circumspect. But she also referred me to the sale results page, which, I was told, would have the saleroom notice appended. Except, of course, it didn’t, because Christie’s deletes online references to unsold lots completely, in order to not taint their saleability in the future.]

An auction-house saleroom is an interesting quasi-public space: what goes on there is generally considered public knowledge, but at the same time information about auction-house results can be quite expensive to retrieve. And even the best results databases don’t make an attempt to document the statements read out at the beginning of the sale.

What’s interesting here is that Christie’s seems to be doing everything it can to bury Kassay’s statement. In the sale, Kassay said that his name should not be associated with the painting, but on Christie’s website, the only mention of the painting still says that it’s a Kassay. And Kassay’s statement itself is nowhere to be found; it’s certainly not being released by Christie’s to Allen, either as a member of the press or as a buyer.

This is just another example of the way in which the entire art market is built on information asymmetries. Christie’s knows something; that information has value, and it rises in value the fewer the number of other people who know that thing. So while Christie’s claims to be in the business of providing public and transparent pricing for art, in fact it’s in the opacity business as much as it’s in the transparency business.

What’s more, the Christie’s press release for this sale trumpeted its online aspect:

Upon the heels of the incredibly successful Elizabeth Taylor online only auction, the First Open sale featured the most LIVE registrants ever for a Christie’s contemporary sale signifying a new era in bidding and buying for this department.

If you look at the LIVE website, it explains that bidders “may enter the online saleroom up to 15 minutes before the start of the sale, or at any point during the sale.” If someone wanted to bid on the Codax using the LIVE system, it’s entirely possible that they could have missed the reading of the Kassay statement. But Christie’s, a bit like Goldman Sachs, is an intermediary always out for itself. Just like everything else in the art world, the rule at auction is always caveat emptor.


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