Going, Going… Gone?
A seemingly endless glut of saleroom fodder has seen the Contemporary art bubble bloat ever more grotesquely. What happens when the supply runs out, asks Godfrey Barker
CONTEMPORARY ART WENT wild this winter. In New York’s glittering evening sales, Sotheby’s rolled up $375 million and Christie’s $412 million for 70-odd lots each, the highest totals ever paid at Contemporary art auctions. The super-rich walked out whistling on their way to the bank. So relaxed was the atmosphere in this stiffest recession in a century that, at Sotheby’s, auctioneer Tobias Meyer lapsed into song.
‘I’ve all the time in the world,’ he crooned to a time-taker who crawled in interminable $500,000 lifts up to $75,122,250 for Rothko’s Royal Red and Blue. Perhaps this slowcoach noticed that he was bidding $75 million for a picture that last sold for around $250,000, but he went courageously on anyway. Why, why, why? A few years ago I asked Meyer why the top price of Rothko had risen four times in five years.
‘Because the very rich have four times as much money as they did five years ago,’ he replied. Now they’ve got sixteen times as much money, but Meyer speaks a basic truth. Other reasons, though, are still more interesting.
The first is that someone has told the world’s rich that their money is safer than safe in the masterpiece section of the art market, and they believe it. This means the top 2 per cent of art prices have soared like rockets since 2010, having already climbed far over the Dow Jones and the FTSE in 2005-08.
Pictured above: The crowd at an auction at Christie’s
THE SECOND IS that in the Contemporary art business, it’s not the price you pay but the profit you make that matters. Take Peter Brant, proud owner of ten American and Canadian paper mills and a fine collection of US living artists and husband of glamorous actress Stephanie Seymour. He paid $15 million, twice Sotheby’s estimate, for Warhol’s Green Disaster of 1963, his first car-crash painting. Wasn’t that rather a lot, my friend Judd Tully asked him on the stairs on the way out, saluting Warhol’s attractive added detail of the driver’s corpse hanging out of the side door.
‘Oh, I didn’t think it too expensive,’ Brant drawled back.
And he didn’t. For what matters to the folk who paid world-record auction prices this winter for Jackson Pollock ($40 million), Franz Kline ($40 million), Basquiat ($26 million) and near-records for Rothko and others is not what they gave, but the price they can sell them for. These pictures will be back on the market five or ten years from now, reselling more likely direct to a chum or through Christie’s and Sotheby’s private sales than on their auction block. The Brants and fellow speculators like them are confident.
The third reason why November’s Contemporary sales in New York nearly doubled the take for similar sales in May is that a special factor has come into play: the Grim Reaper. While he lingers, it’s a golden age for 20th-century art. Collectors who bought direct from Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol are dying and their trophies are coming on the market. If they’re alive, they’re selling ahead of the grave to maximise their tax advantage.
AFTER THE WAR, many of America’s new rich wandering down Fulton Street bought the very best out of the artists’ studios at highly affordable prices. Now old or dead, they contributed richly to this winter’s high prices by creating the slim but definite supply.
Christie’s put up ten works from the estate of Hannelore and Rudolph B Schulhof, five from the estate of David Pincus, ten from the collection of Douglas S Cramer and one — Warhol’s $23 million Marlon, chased by six bidders — from the collection of Donald L Bryant. Sotheby’s played the ace of trumps with eight paintings from still-living Sidney and Dorothy Kohl in Palm Beach which sold for $101.3 million, and one (that $75.1 million Rothko) from Anne and John Marion in Texas — he a former chairman of Sotheby’s New York in the Eighties.
Open the catalogues for these sales and you read tributes to these towering Americans which go beyond prostration. They spread-eagle themselves in adulation. The Schulhofs, remembered by Christie’s across six fawning pages littered with photographs and large-print reverential salutes, are credited with a ‘discerning vision’ and ‘exceptional connoisseurship’ over 50 years that ‘set the standard’ for lesser collectors of art around the world.
You might not have noticed it at the time, so the catalogues bang the message home. Lots were often described this winter as emerging from ‘distinguished’ and ‘important’ collections, while the Kohls, having somehow restrained Sotheby’s to limiting their name to a single mention, were raised to ‘distinguished American collectors’ in the catalogue pages, eight times over.
These people made fortunes in the postwar years in greetings cards, men’s clothing, TV productions, life assurance and wine, Florida real estate and auctioneering. Meritorious, no doubt, but these are not professions which lift someone high above humankind and a million others like them.
Read Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York profiles, though (you don’t get this stuff in the London catalogues), and they do not only walk taller than Barack Obama. Innocent new buyers might suppose from the hype that these paintings and sculptures were being sold from the collection of the Almighty Himself.
CONTEMPORARY ART IS an unashamedly financial market, and every market has its summit. So how long will this boom last? When new fashions grip the market, when supreme postwar 20th-century works have vanished at sale and only the second to fifth rank remains — what happens then?
There seem to be two possibilities. One is the catastrophic crash in values which befell Victorian painting when belief failed in it after 1930. Equal disaster fell upon the stars of late Victorian Paris, Millet, the saintly painter of peasants in the fields, and Meissonier, the remembrancer of Napoleon’s victories.
And oblivion was the fate of the Dutch Barbizon painters Jozef and Isaac Israels and the Maris brothers, who between 1900 and 1910 sold for five times the price of Monet and Renoir and for ten times the price of Van Gogh, not least to our own Tate Gallery. Eighty years later, their prices were the same in cash figures as they were in 1900.
The other outcome is that new buyers will (continue to) arise in the BRIC countries and around the world who are more interested in ‘brand names’ in art than in quality. This is what is happening with Impressionist paintings, a market now in visible decline. Masterpieces by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley and Pissarro have long left the market but there is still surprising business in the mediocre from Japan, China, Russia and Brunei (the Sultan, not Prince Jefri).
What will happen when the best of American Contemporary art, now gracing the salerooms, flees? There’s no knowing. I once asked a New York dealer why, at Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales, people who were watching burst into applause. Rothko at $75 million, Warhol at $43 million, Koons at $33 million… the crowd went mad every time the hammer came down. It’s just like goals at a football match. Why?
‘They’re punters who’ve got Rothkos, Warhols and Koonses on the wall back home,’ was the reply. ‘They’ve come along to watch their wealth going up.’
Photographs © Christie’s Images Limited 2013