Recent Articles
Trevor Paglen talks about his new show Bloom
Q&A
Trevor Paglen: ‘Bloom was put together in a moment of death and mourning, a moment when the fragility of our lives and institutions is in sharp focus.’
Eye on the suburbs? Here's some art that works outside the city
Living With Art
Eye on the suburbs? Then consider some art that works outside the inner city
It's Time to Take Cartoon Art a Little More Seriously
Living With Art
It's Time to Take Cartoon Art a Little More Seriously
Bring New York and London's Fashion Weeks Into Your Home
On Trend
Bring New York and London's Fashion Weeks Into Your Home With These Elegant Artworks
The Artspace Group Show: The City
Living With Art
The Artspace Group Show: The City
Fall for Your Walls: Bring an Autumnal Aspect to Your Collection
Expert Eye
Fall for Your Walls: Bring an Autumnal Aspect to Your Collection
The Artspace Group Show: Science Fiction
Living With Art
The Artspace Group Show: Science Fiction
The Artspace Group Show: The Sea
Living With Art
The Artspace Group Show: The Sea
5 Great Pieces on Women's Equality Day
Expert Eye
Rhinestones, Sequins, Paint, Photography and Linocuts - 5 Great Pieces on Women's Equality Day
Broaden Out Into New Media With These Innovative Works
Expert Eye
Beyond Two Dimensions: Add New Media To Your Collection With These Innovative Works
INTERVIEW: Wolfgang Tillmans
Q&A
INTERVIEW: Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘Classic photography seemed so remote, so irrelevant to me. It just didn’t touch me'
INTERVIEW: Mark Bradford
Q&A
INTERVIEW: Mark Bradford: ‘Everybody should have a little protection, a little cover, a little bit of a net and society should give it to us'
Paul McCarthy 'I suspect they're disturbed when ketchup is blood'
Q&A
INTERVIEW: Paul McCarthy: 'My work refers to my private, forgotten or repressed memories. I recognize them as existing, but I am not sure how they relate to me. Are they specifically my trauma, or someone else’s?'
10 Questions for Met Museum Director Max Hollein
Q&A
10 Questions for Met Museum Director Max Hollein
INTERVIEW: Genesis Tramaine on Her New Artspace Print
Meet the Artist
INTERVIEW: Genesis Tramaine on Her New Artspace and NYFA Limited Edition Print, Black Woman University

See Here

Learning to Love the Eight-Figure Art Market

By

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.

DISCOVER

a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.

LEARN

through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.

BUY

authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.

CONNECT

with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.

INSIDER ACCESS TO THE WORLD'S BEST ART

Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.

  • COLLECT FROM 300+ GALLERIES & MUSEUMS