The four rules of writing about art auctions
A loyal reader asks my advice for writing about art auctions. Itâ€™s pretty simple, and boils down to four rules:
- It isnâ€™t a market for masterpieces.
- Ignore auction records.
- Adjust for inflation.
- Make judgments.
The best way to illustrate the first rule is via a chart, which I generated from data given to me by the good people art Artnet:
What youâ€™re seeing here is a pretty volatile six years in the history of art auctions. (The figures for 2013 are to November 30.) Artnet took all the lots sold at Sothebyâ€™s and Christieâ€™s in each year, and separated them into the top 20% and the bottom 80%. They then measured how much money the top 20% of lots brought in, as a fraction of the total.
In absolute terms, the ranges were big: the top 20% of lots brought in $6.8 billion so far this year, compared to just $3.2 billion in 2009. But in percentage terms, the numbers are astonishingly constant, right around the 90% level: they never dipped below 89%, or rose above 92%.
In other words, no matter what the market, the top quintile of art works will always accounts for 90% of the value of the art sold.
This is a fact every art reporter should know â€” because the minute you start interviewing self-appointed art-market experts, theyâ€™re all going to say exactly the same thing. Itâ€™s a quote found in auction report after auction report, and it generally comes from some dealer or other: â€śthe very best art is in high demand and getting amazing prices,â€ť heâ€™ll say, or words to that effect, â€śbut anything less than the very best is going to be very hard to sellâ€ť.
The astonishing thing is that art-market reporters fall for this every season, even though itâ€™s exactly the same thing theyâ€™ve heard in every other season. In todayâ€™s market, they write, itâ€™s all about the masterpieces â€” the truly amazing works which sell for jaw-dropping megabucks. Everything else is an also-ran. (Itâ€™s taken for granted that the most expensive works are masterpieces; weâ€™ll come back to that in a bit.)
But the fact is, statistically speaking, that the distribution of art-market values never really changes at all. Whatâ€™s true today was true yesterday, and was true a decade ago as well. The only difference is the way in which the art-market caravan has moved on and anointed a new set of art works as being the â€śmasterpiecesâ€ť worth spending insane amounts of money on.
Similarly, every season thereâ€™s breathless coverage of new auction records â€” a long list of artists, all of whom just saw a work sell for more money than that artist has ever received at auction before. The auction houses love to present those auction records as a sign that the market is particularly healthy. But in fact, itâ€™s more of a sign of how fickle both the auction houses and the art market are. Each season, a new artist is hot, and sells for high prices; the superstars of yesteryear, by contrast, arenâ€™t even accepted for auction at all, much of the time. Todayâ€™s masterpiece is tomorrowâ€™s mildly embarrassing reminder of how bad our taste used to be.
And then, of course, thereâ€™s the simple act of adjusting for inflation, which seemingly no art-market reporter is capable of. For instance, that record-busting Francis Bacon triptych is not â€śthe Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold at an Auctionâ€ť if you follow the sensible rule that all prices should be adjusted for inflation. The record still belongs to Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which was sold for $147 million, in todayâ€™s money, back in 1990.
So what should you do, if you want to cover the art auctions? Hereâ€™s one idea: try to spot the artists who arenâ€™t selling, or who are quietly being moved to the day sales. The auction houses do a very good job of expectations management, in setting public estimates for the paintings theyâ€™re selling: if the estimate is low, and the price realized is equally low, itâ€™s easy to think thereâ€™s nothing newsworthy going on â€” even if, a few years ago, the same piece might have sold for multiples of what itâ€™s now able to fetch.
But the best art-auction reports go further than that, and talk in detail about the ever-present gap between price and quality. Inside an auction house, itâ€™s in everybodyâ€™s interest to pretend that the most expensive art is the best art. But no one actually believes that. So: which works are faddishly overvalued? Which ones look like theyâ€™re selling for a (relative) song?
A little bit of connoisseurship, in an auction report, goes a long way. Maybe that should be the first rule of covering such events: donâ€™t leave your critical faculties at the door. Without them, indeed, youâ€™re unlikely to be able to say anything particularly insightful at all.