The fall auction season in New York, two weeks during which more than $2 billion worth of art changed hands and 23 works sold for more than $20 million each, is causing even more than the usual fretting about inequality, bubbles, wretched excess and art itself.
One piece, by Bendor Grosvenor, who penned a commentary for the Financial Times published on Nov. 18 and headlined Contemporary art is judged by its price tag not by aesthetics, begs for a response.
Grosvenor's piece angered some people because he trashed Robert Gober. That's his right, and I won't disagree.
It also contained a key passage with which I tend to agree:
...we have collectively lost the ability to assess art for ourselves and on its own merits. Instead, we follow such indicators as fashion, price, and, in this case, hype. You may say it was ever thus. But the result today, when allied with an ever wealthier elite for whom buying contemporary art has become a form of conspicuous consumption, is an unprecedented art boom. Can it last?
He listed two ways "the market has developed ways to help make sure the numbers go up – or at least appear to." And that's where he gets it wrong.
Criticizing auction guarantees, Grosvenor says "...[guarantors] are allowed to bid the work up during the sale too. But if they happen to buy it, their presale negotiation (again, undisclosed) means they will not pay anything like the 'price' reported by the auction house, and nor will the new 'value' of the work be representative."
Now that truly would be a scandal, but it was not my understanding. So I took up this issue with both Sotheby's and Christie's and it is simply not true. Guarantors may bid during the sale but only beyond the level of their irrevocable bid. They have no information about the reserve or the level of interest than any other potential buyer, as all guaranteed lots are marked or announced in the room by the auctioneer. If guarantors win the lot, they pay the full hammer price plus the buyer's premium.
Plus, a Christie's spokesperson said, "Crucially, they must give Christie's a legal commitment not to discuss, promote, market or advise on a work without disclosing their financial involvement."
Grosvenor's other complaint—that dealers representing an artist can and do bid up lots in the auction room, anonymously, to support prices or push them to a new level—is dead-on correct. Dealers defend this practice as support for their artists, not as the money-making tactic for them that it is.
But it is an insidious practice, and should somehow be banned.