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Learning to Love the Eight-Figure Art Market


Learning to Love the Eight-Figure Art Market
The observation that prices at auction always seem to go up doesn't make all creators happy.

Big bucks can excite hot tempers.

“Fuck off! I wouldn't sell you that piece for $1 million or $76 million or $124 million! I just sold it yesterday to a friend who will never put it up for auction where obscene billionaire scumbags like you and all the Kool-Aid drinking greedy ugly immoral hedge fund auction house zombies can trade it back and forth until everybody is just so titillated they follow you creeps off the cliff!”

So reads one juicy passage in an intemperate but amusing email chain that somehow escaped from the computer of a much-loved art-world hothead—sorry, he will remain nameless here—after a rather impressive art-market transaction didn’t go quite according to plan. Apparently, this is the way the big boys do business, cursing and screaming, at least some of the time.
Our friend’s animus toward the supercharged prices of the top-end art market is no surprise. For idealists, his position is principled, i.e. of all the things that contemporary art is allowed to be about these days, rank financial speculation is not one of them. Art and money are not friends, and there’s nothing like a hearty expression of rage to put distance between you and such non-aesthetic concerns. But artists do care about cash, of course, and don't hesitate to complain that they deserve a piece of the upside when their works sell at a profit on the secondary market. Thus, resale royalties remain a hot-button art-world issue, and new legislation is expected to be reintroduced in Congress in 2014.
Alas, the story of our foul-mouthed artist-hero—who did succeed in selling his art treasure for a sweet $1 million, just not to a "hedge fund auction house zombie"—illustrates the basic contradiction of the artist’s position in today’s art market. That is, artists wouldn't mind profiting from the very art-market inflation that makes them so miserable.
It's not uncommon. One of my favorite tales involves an old friend, a Lower East Side neighbor from the 1980s, who knew Jean-Michel Basquiat and bought several works from him back in the day, when he would wander around selling his art on the street for $100 or so. Not too long ago, she was able to sell one of the paintings and put the cash towards the purchase of a house in Brooklyn. And this is a person whose devotion to a low-paying art-world career has been admirable and steadfast.
In investing terms, this kind of art deal would be a “long,” meaning you hold it until, well, a long time has passed. 
Despite all the complaints, a booming art market arguably benefits the art business as a whole, at least to the extent that collectors are encouraged by the notion that their purchases may well increase in value. It’s the art-world version of trickle-down economics. You can also say that the art world is like a drug gang (cf. "Freakonomics"), in that dreadful working conditions for younger artists are offset by the prospect of future wealth. 
While selling an artwork may be hard, liking one can be fairly easy, and that's basically what curators and critics and the general audience do.
On Facebook the other day I ventured that curators were more likely to be influenced by the market than the other way around, a comment that drew a mild rebuke from Anthony Elms, one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. He was no doubt right, and it occurs to me now that a typical biennial mixes market darlings with new talent and art-world outliers in what appears to be a fairly random fashion. Presumably the idea is that to the extent that market success and curatorial intention overlap, it’s only an accident.
Just for fun, then, I ran the names of those artists selected for the 2014 biennial through the Artnet auction database. Of 103 artists and artist-groups, 42 have had something put up for auction, or almost 41 percent. It's worth massaging the numbers a little bit to leave out writers and musicians, as well as artists whose auction appearances seem anomalous, i.e. one-time events, or who have no actual sales, or sales in the low four figures. This maneuver decreases the proportion of artists subject to auction-market taint to 26, or a mere 25 percent.
The results? At the high end we have Sterling Ruby (auction record $1.8 million), Bjarne Melgaard ($471,110), Laura Owens ($116,500), Sheila Hicks ($93,750), and Charline von Heyl ($80,500). More in the middle are Jimmie Durham ($24,925), Louise Fishman ($25,000), Karl Haendel ($30,000), Jacqueline Humphries ($23,700), Zoe Leonard ($32,200), John Mason ($25,000), Peter Schuyff ($33,000, set in 1989), Amy Sillman ($34,000), Emily Sundblad ($37,500), Ricky Swallow ($24,700), and Dan Walsh ($47,800). Among the accomplished artists who have managed to avoid auction appearances altogether—so far—are Michel Auder, Julie Ault and Allan Sekula. The auction record for Sarah Charlesworth is $22,500, while Gretchen Bender is at $2,000.
The question of who gets bragging rights for what—that is, low prices or high prices—remains an open one. If nothing else, this exercise suggests that the auction market, like critical decision-making, follows a curious logic all its own.

Walter Robinson is an artist and art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). His work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, Dorian Grey, and other galleriesClick here to see his previous See Here column on Artspace.


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