The art world is truly the Teflon market—destabilizing economies and weakening currencies just seem to slide off art, as the art market continues to break records each season.
This is true too of the ultra-contemporary art market, where works made in the last few years by young artists are selling for wild figures. While this is technically great news for the artist’s reputation and market, most artists do not benefit from the resale of their work—the only people who reap the benefits of the artists’ popularity are the collectors and auction houses. More on that below. (There was too much to cover, so I’ve selected only a few sales and selected highlights to address.)
First, the big hoopla of the 2022 fall auction season was the sale of art from the Estate of Paul Allen at Christie’s. I admire the late Microsoft cofounder’s taste: while the collection certainly leans towards modern and contemporary, he also collected art from “dustier” periods of history, which is a testament to his sincere interest in the vision of artists throughout time. Thanks to some rare and marquee works, over two nights the collection grossed a stunning $1.62 billion, making it the most expensive single-owner sale in history. That value is 40% of Christie’s total auction turnover from 2021! And some silver lining: the Estate will use the proceeds to fund philanthropy.
Here are some of my favorites from the marquee sale:
I’m a sucker for Gustav Klimt. His exquisite 1903 painting Birch Forest sold for over $104 million, beating his previous record for one of his famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which Oprah bought for $87.9 million in 2006 at Christie’s. (She recently sold it for $150 million. It appreciated well!)
While this work sold on the low end of its pre-sale estimate of $45–65 million ($52 million), the tight cropping of Edouard Manet’s Le Grand Canal à Venise (1874) is a testament to the burgeoning influence of photography on mid-19th century art. This little vignette would not exist without photography.
Christie’s lengthy essay on Lucian Freud’s Large Interior, WII (after Watteau) says the painting “stands among the defining achievements of Lucian Freud’s oeuvre.” I love it because I think it asks as many questions as it answers. The masterpiece took in a cool $86 million.
By some accounts there are only 5 Botticellis left in private hands, which makes it remarkable that Allen’s fabulous Madonna the Magnificat only sold for $48.5 million. But that’s the art market for you: everyone wants Postwar and Contemporary art!
Last highlight from the Allen sale: Georges Seurat’s, Les Poseuses, Ensemble, from 1888. This small 15 x 20 in. painting is a miniature study (or possibly later version) of a larger canvas in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The painting was a response to criticism of his breakout (and still probably most famous) work, Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte, seen in the background of this work from 1886. Given its importance in the critical narrative of Seurat’s work (and who doesn’t love a painting within a painting?), this little painting achieved over $149 million. It was the highest bid of the night and year, and the new auction record for the artist. Whew!
Christie’s other Modern and Contemporary sales—the 20th and 21st century sales, respectively—grossed almost $422 million in one day for just 100 lots. As noted above, one thing that concerns me with the ultra-contemporary sales is whether the artists are getting compensated for the resale of their art at auction. Some of these works, such as a Anna Weyant’s 2020 work Loose Screw, are being flipped a few years after creation for many times what the buyer paid for it. At just 27 years old, Weyant’s painting sold for $1.5 million, or three times the high estimate for her. But who knows what she pocketed in the initial private sale…
Some of these hot artists have gotten hip to the game, and due to their high demand, are going directly to auction to sell their work: Salmon Toor, in conjunction with his gallery Luhring Augustine, put up his 2019 painting Four Guests for auction. It achieved $856,000, five times its high estimate of $180,000—at least he benefited from the sale!
If you read my blog post on NFTs, you know I’ve never been a fan (and predicted their market instability and downfall), but one possibly positive use of blockchain technology in our industry is for the creation of smart contracts that enable artists to reap royalties on the resale of their work. I still think we just need to implement some federal law that ensures artists get resale rights, but for now blockchain could be a viable solution (if only it wasn’t soooo bad for the planet…sigh…).
In other news, Sotheby’s had a decent fall season too: across six sales of Modern and Contemporary art, Sotheby’s grossed $856 million, with the Contemporary evening sale taking in $269 million, and the Modern evening sale grossing $253 million. The marquee pieces that drove the Contemporary sale was Andy Warhol’s White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), which brought $85.3 million, and Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, which took $30 million.
But notably several works in the sale, including the Bacon triptych, sold on the low end of—or below—their presale estimates, indicating the Sotheby’s specialists were a little too optimistic with their forecasts.
One of the most disappointing results was for Robert Gober’s Untitled installation (1993-94). The photo doesn’t do the art much justice, and even in person, it takes a moment to realize what you’re looking at: it’s a storm drain with real water trickling in it. As you pay closer attention, you see a man’s chest is the drain, complete with real human hair. The installation had a pre-sale estimate of $6–8 million, but sold well under at $3.68 million. Perhaps the practicality of installing a work that is a storm drain/fountain was just too much of a headache for collectors…
Some other favorites of mine from the Sotheby’s Contemporary sale:
Ed Clark’s Blue Splash of 1967, sold for $882, 000 against an estimate of $200,000 – 300,000.
As lovely as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Saxophone (1986) is, it sadly was one of the works over-estimated by the Sotheby’s specialists: it sold for $13.67 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $12 – 18 million.
Always love me some Joan Mitchell. Her classic 1956 Untitled had a pre-sale estimate of $1.5 – 2 million, and sold for $3.2 million.
Lastly, Kenneth Noland’s Sounds in the Summer Night (1962), sold for $3.2 million against a $2 – 3 million estimate. Love the palette.
Well for now (er, as always?) the art market remains alive and well. Until next time, peace love and art. ❤️
It was a jam-packed auction season—the first in two years with in-person audiences—with some standout collections and blue-chip artworks that led to a soaring $2.6 billion in generated revenue for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Due to time, I did not get a chance to cover the Phillips sales, but in the next few blog posts, I summarize some highlights from the modern and contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But here, first, an introduction of sorts, with a few over-arching points and themes to touch on:
In a sign of our ever-changing times, it’s worth noting that Sotheby’s has yet again restructured its marquee sales into different categories. You may recall in my December 2020 post, I recounted the confusing structural changes that the auction houses experimented with in the face of the pandemic, including global online “relay” auctions, throwing in some Old Masters (and T-Rexes) into the mix, and generally shaking up the time-honored categories of “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary.” And for their 2021 Spring auctions, Christie’s committed to a permanent change away from these categories to respective 20th and 21st century sales, the parameters of which are noted as “flexible.”
This fall, Sotheby’s announced they are restructuring the modern and contemporary evening auctions into 3 sales: “The Modern,” (covering late 19th to early 20th century art), “The Contemporary,” (covering postwar art to the late 20th century) and “The Now” (art of the last two decades). A Sotheby’s representative noted that, like Christie’s’ groupings, these parameters are flexible, because the sales also take into consideration stylistic—rather than strictly chronological—factors.
Sotheby’s’ and Christie’s’ creation of marquee sales just for 21st century art reflects the unprecedented market demand for art by living artists. There is no doubt that the art in these contemporary sales is absolutely fabulous, and when you survey the modern and contemporary sales, the newest work does feel fresh and incredibly satisfying. With waiting lists at galleries for some of the hottest emerging artists—who can only produce so much (good) art in a year—artworks that were painted in 2019, 2020, and 2021 are showing up at auction, and bursting past their estimates at jaw-dropping rates.
The concern of many in the artworld, however, is that emerging artists are missing out on the financial returns. More often than not, it is collectors who are flipping the paintings, after having purchased them at modest “emergent prices” from the artist’s gallery. We are seeing some glimpses where artists are submitting their paintings straight to auction, and reaping the rewards. Until recently, it was considered inappropriate—and even arrogant—for an artist to bypass galleries and sell new work directly to auction. Damien Hirst was one such rare case with his 2008 Sotheby’s auction of new work fresh from his studio, and even as a market veteran, he was called “cocky” by more than one critic for the stunt.
In the NFT market, it is almost exclusively artists who are selling their work at auction (see my post on the Christie’s auction with Beeple’s recent HUMAN ONE, or my general blog post on NFTs, for more on the current NFT trend). But anyways, perhaps with the new trend toward contemporary—and the auction houses’ pivot to serve this market—it’ll be more commonplace to see artists selling directly through auction.
Sotheby’s took another note from the Christie’s playbook, too: they took advantage of the many eyes on the popular modern and contemporary sales to squeeze in an anachronistic but high-profile item: a single lot sale of a copy of the original printed U.S. Constitution, one of only two copies that exists in private hands (out of 13 extant copies total). Wedged between “The Now” and Contemporary evening sale, the Constitution was offered by private collector Dorothy Tapper Goldman, and sold to billionaire collector Kenneth Griffin for $43.2 million.
As always, year on year, as the art market continues to reach dizzying and seemingly endless heights, I reflect on what it says about our culture and society at large. While I love art—which, if you’re reading this blog, I am sure you do too—I am alarmed at the excess of the artworld, especially now, when so many people in the world face financial insecurity in the midst of COVID. The strength of the art market is a symptom—and powerful symbol—of the growing wealth inequality of our times. So until we address wealth inequality in a major way, I don’t think we will see much of a deflation in the art market soon.
There was a lot to cover this year, so I’ve broken up the summaries of the auctions’ offerings into different posts—you can read about Sotheby’s’ sales here, and Christie’s’ sales here. Remember, when I speak of pre-sale estimates it refers to hammer prices, whereas any final selling price I quote includes the buyer’s premium (the buyer’s fees to the auction house).
Christie’s had one of its most successful weeks in its history–which given the current state of the country and world, is saying something. With just the three auctions discussed below–the 20th and 21st century sales, plus a single-owner auction of Impressionist masterpieces–Christie’s raised nearly $1 billion.
Christie’s’ first sale of the week was its 21st century sale (i.e. contemporary art). The biggest ticket item of the sale was a massive Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, The Guilt of Gold Teeth from 1982. Interestingly, there is no lot essay for this work, which is surprising given the pre-sale estimate of $40–60 million. Perhaps this work was a last-minute addition to the sale, which may explain why it ultimately did not meet the house’s expectations, selling with fees at the low estimate of $40 million. Peter Doig’s large Swamped, one of his classic images of a canoe on water, took in almost $40 million as well.
The next big seller was from Beeple, the artist with the record-setting NFT collection EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days which earlier this year sold for $69 million. Here, Beeple has created HUMAN ONE, a kinetic sculpture with four video screens of rotating landscapes traversed by a lonely astronaut. As Beeple explains in his own Terms and Conditions issued with the art, the sculpture is the “Physical Element” that displays the digital “Artwork:”
“Although the NFT and Physical Element are sold to the purchaser, the Artwork is licensed and not sold to such purchaser. The Artwork is neither stored nor embedded in the NFT, but is accessible through the NFT. The Physical Element displays a copy of the Artwork.”
Of course, given the hype of NFTs, and Beeple’s recent success (which instigated said hype of NFTs), HUMAN ONE achieved almost $29 million. While I think Human One is far better than 5000 Days, in my opinion, Beeple is a better opportunist than an artist. Here’s why:
You don’t need a f*cking NFT to create a digital work of art!! It is strictly a marketing ploy. NFTs are being marketed to sell you the idea that you can’t own or trade unique digital artwork unless it has been minted on the blockchain. But this is completely false.
There are hundreds of artists who create digital artwork. Sometimes, the artist designs a special mechanism or sculpture to display the digital creation. There are also artists who have used A.I. algorithms to create digital art that changes and evolves. All of these works can be created as secure, unique artworks (i.e. one copy) or limited edition works (often in small editions of 2, 3, 5, etc.). This can be all be done without NFTs. Let me repeat: the NFT is completely unnecessary.
You may glean from my tone that I am not a fan of NFTs. You can read my fuller assessment of NFTs here (one point I think I failed to make in my previous blog post on NFTs is that they have an astronomical energy footprint and are thus terrible for the environment. One more reason not to be suckered in to this ridiculous hyped-up scam).
I need some cheering up: let me talk about the art that I liked in the 21st century sale.
The first three lots in the sale were among my favorites: opener Darling by Xinyi Cheng from 2017 sold for $300,000, far outstripping its $30,000–40,000 estimate. And the second lot, Hilary Pecis’s 2019 canvas Upstairs Interior, sold for more than ten times its high estimate of $80,000, bringing $870,000. And while I don’t love all of Nicolas Party’s work, I do like the landscape he submitted to the auction, which roared past its $300,000–500,000 estimate to achieve $3.27 million, with fees. All together, Christie’s 21st century sale raked in $219 million.
Just as Sotheby’s’ season benefitted from the marquee sale of the Macklowe Collection, Christie’s’ fall season was enhanced by a collection of Impressionist masterworks from the Estate of the late Edwin Cox, a Texas oil magnate. The heart-stopping prizes of the night included an absolutely magnificent Vincent van Gogh landscape from 1889. Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprés has the classic van Gogh palette, with its aquamarine sky and bushes, contrasting against the bright yellow fields and spindly cypress trees. The show-stopper sold for $71.35 million with fees (estimate was by request).
Two more van Goghs brought in stunning prices as well: a bright watercolor of peasants harvesting threshes by haystacks (Meules de blé) from 1888. Interestingly, this work was stolen by the Nazis from the famous French banking family the Rothschilds in Paris 1941. Christie’s noted that the sale of the work was pursuant to a settlement between the Cox Estate and the descendants of the Rothschilds, who claim rightful ownership. I think they’ll be satisfied with their settlement: this little work on paper sold for over $35.8 million.
The other van Gogh took everyone by a surprise: a portrait of a boy with a blue flower in his mouth, painted one month before the artist’s untimely death in July of 1890. The boy’s red hair is wild; his cheeks ruddy from his antics in the sun; his lips chapped; and he has a rather goofy expression. Given the admittedly less appealing palette and subject, Christie’s had put a more modest estimate of $5–7 million on the painting, but bidding far surpassed expectations, bringing this small portrait (16 x 12 in.) to more than $46.7 million.
And finally, a record was set for the evening for Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme àsa fenétre, from 1876. This museum-quality work went, in fact, to a museum: the Getty in Los Angeles acquired it, shelling out $53 million, more than double the artist’s previous record of $22 million.
All in, the Cox collection grossed over $332 million, serving as a highly satisfying appetizer to the evening’s main entrée: the new 20th century sale. The fresh catch (to continue the food analogy) of the night was Andy Warhol’s portrait of fellow art market superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dated from 1982, the painting incorporates a brief experimental phase of Warhol’s, in which he coated paintings with a copper metallic pigment and urinated on them, creating an oxidized effect over time. The portrait sold for just over $40 million, making it the highest selling work of the night.
Another notable sale of the evening was Lee Bontecou’s classic sculptural painting Untitled from 1960. With an estimate of $2–3 million, it sold for more than double the high estimate, bringing $9.2 million and breaking the artist’s previous record of $1.9 million (set over 10 years ago). Cy Twombly also has had a good auction season, with a few works offered at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s; in this sale, a large untitled painting from 1961 brought $32 million.
Some additional personal favorites from the sale: Light, a still life by Alice Neel. More reminiscent of Jane Freilicher than the portraiture for which Neel has become so well-known, this still life was recently featured in Neel’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting brought over $2.3 million against a $900,000–1,200,000 estimate. David Hockney’s bright study of a Woldgate Tree, Mayfrom 2006 sold over its $3–5 million estimate to bring $6.27 million. And Kazuo Shiraga’s dynamic abstraction Chiken-sei kendoskin (1961) sold for $3.33 million, against a $2.5–3.5 million pre-sale estimate.
In total, the 20th century took in $419.8 million, which, when taken together with the Cox collection sale that preceded it, Christie’s had a $752 million dollar evening—one of its most successful nights ever.
After nearly six decades of marriage (and art-collecting), the couple went through a bitter divorce. There were 65 artworks for which the divorcees could not agree on a value or settlement, so in 2018 a judge ordered them to sell these works and split the revenue.
Sotheby’s won the bid for the collection, on the promise that they would guarantee at least $600 million to the Macklowes. Well, they delivered: of the 35 lots offered in this single-owner sale, a whopping 20 sold over $10 million, with the final tally coming to a staggering $676 million dollars with fees.
The biggest ticket items included Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez (conceived in 1947-49, cast in 1965) which took home $78,396,000; No. 7, a warm Mark Rothko canvas (1951), which achieved $82,468,500; Warhol’s Nine Marilyns in silver from 1962, which took $47,373,000; and a Jackson Pollock which soared past its $25–35 million estimate to sell for $61,161,000 (Number 17, 1951).
My favorite of the sale: Franz Kline’s Crosstown (1955), which brought $12,0401,250 (surprisingly just inside its low estimate of $12–18 million).
Next, let’s touch on the “The Now” auction. Sotheby’s scheduled this 23-lot auction of ultra-contemporary art as a kind of opening act for its main contemporary evening sale, hoping to generate buzz and interest. It paid off: several artists records, and a 100% sell-through rate that generated $71.8 million, well over its collective presale estimate of $36.6–53.2 million. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the opening lot: Lisa Brice’s No Bare Back, after Embah (2017), which exploded past its estimate of $200,000–300,000 to bring over $3.1 million, crushing the artist’s previous auction record of $34,500.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, now ever-present in contemporary art auctions, also set a new record with Through Line, which took $2.2 million for the evening. This beats Odutola’s record of $832,700 that was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past April.
Undoubtedly the starlet of “The Now” auction was Yoshitomo Nara’s 1996 painting Nice to See You Again. This menacing little tyke had a presale estimate of $8–12 million, ultimately earning $15.4 with fees. Other favorites included Matthew Wong’s exquisite Night Crossing from 2018, which tore past its $1–1.5 million estimate to earn $4.86 million; Hernan Bas’s Night Flight or Midnight Migration, or My Merry Way (2008), which took $746,000 against an estimate of $150,000–200,000; and Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Maya #10, which sold for $528,200.
In a first, during the “The Now” sale, Sotheby’s allowed live bidding in cryptocurrency on two works by Banksy (Trolley Hunters and Love is in the Air). While the live bidding was conducted in Ether, the winning bidder can settle their tab in crypto or USD, so frankly I’m not sure what the point was. Alternating the currency during bidding seems arbitrary, and in this case a stunt to pump up interest in cryptocurrency. (Not to mention I think that bidding in crypto is incredibly messy, because crypto’s market is still so volatile and unstable. But perhaps that’s another blog entry…)
Sotheby’s fall season also got a nice boost from the collection of the late Douglas S. Cramer, a TV producer who died in June. Works from his collection will be sold throughout November and December, but the Contemporary auction in particular benefited from some standout works of his, including the biggest prize of the night: Roy Lichtenstein’s Two Paintings: Craig… (1983). The artist gifted the work to Cramer in 1992, and it was a gift that kept giving many times over, earning almost $20.4 million, surpassing its $12–18 million estimate.
Two Cecily Brown works from Cramer’s collection—Spree (1999) and Bend Sinister (2002)—each exceeded their pre-sale expectations, with the former earning almost $6.6 million (the second highest record for Brown), and the latter over $6.3 million (a third Cecily Brown, Untitled (Trapeze) unfortunately under-performed, bringing only $806,500 against a $1.5–2 million estimate).
My personal favorites from the contemporary auction include two wonderful collages by Romare Bearden which bookended the sale: The Street (1975) and The Cardplayers(1982), with the former setting a new record for the artist when it pushed past its $500,000–700,000 estimate to achieve just over $1.1 million. (Personally, I think it’s insane that a national treasure like Romare Bearden doesn’t have a market even close to the stratosphere of some of today’s popular yet completely mediocre and overrated contemporary art. But what can you do…)
I also loved Charles White’s large charcoal and crayon work Nobody Knows My Name #2 (1965), which exceeded its $400,000–600,000 estimate to bring $867,000; Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1959), which scored $6.2 million against an estimate of $5.5–6.5 million; and Robert Indiana’s athletic 5 (1964), which broke through its $250,000–350,000 estimate to achieve $528,200.
The total revenue for Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale came to $119.2 million.
Finally, the modern sale. The real show-stopper was a double-portrait by Frida Kahlo, with Diego Rivera painted onto her mind’s eye in a self-portrait. Executed in 1949, the tears on her cheeks refer to Rivera’s infamous infidelity. The portrait sold for almost $34.9 million, not only shattering Kahlo’s previous auction record ($8 million) but also breaking the record for any artwork sold by a Latin American artist—a distinction previously held by none other than her husband, Diego Rivera. Sweet revenge for Frida!
Another record was broken that fateful night: Pierre Soulages, one of my favorite artists, is perhaps best known for his monochromatic black paintings, but in this case it was a black-and-red 1961 canvas that set his new record at $20.1 million, crushing the painting’s $8–12 million estimate and Soulage’s previous record of $10.6 million (set in 2018).
One of the other big attractions of the night was Claude Monet’s Coin du basin aux nymphéas, a classic late work from the artist’s famous garden at Giverny. This 1918 canvas’s gorgeous abstract composition feels decidedly modern, and sold for $50.8 million (the pre-sale estimate was not published). A few more Monet’s were included in the sale that are more squarely 19th century Impressionist works, but seemed to make the cut for the modern evening sale.
Other favorites of mine from the sale include a stunning and tame Symbolist landscape by Edvard Munch ($5.32 million) and a classic German Expressionist work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (I’m a sucker for Kirchner), which sold for $2.9 million. In total, Sotheby’s modern auction took in $282.8 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $192.2–266.9 million (remember pre-sale estimates are hammer prices, the final total includes buyer’s premiums to the auction house).
I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post. Partly because, frankly, I still don’t 100% understand CryptoArt, and I wasn’t sure I should weigh in on the topic until I had a better grasp of it. But no matter how much I read about it, there are still some head-scratching aspects of this new art/economic frontier. But perhaps the best way to work through my own incomprehension is to talk it out right here.
And I’ll also admit, part of the reason I’ve avoided publicly talking about CryptoArt is that it forces a difficult conversation of what is “good” and “bad” art, or just whatqualifies as art–a meta question that has been debated among philosophers for millenia. While I don’t like openly disparaging certain artists or genres, as an art expert, in this case critique will be unavoidable. I recognize that, to some readers, I will sound curmudgeonly, maybe even snobbish, and technologically short-sighted–I must own it. Only time will tell if this is truly the future of art, or a fad that will go the way of Beanie Babies. Either way, I do apologize in advance for any sensibilities I may offend, and I welcome any comments that may elucidate some of my issues with CryptoArt (keep it respectful, please).
First, let’s just define “NFTs.” For its largely uninitiated audience, Christie’s actually provides a helpful “NFT 101” page where they define NFTs, or non-fungible tokens:
An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to establish and demonstrate ownership rights in the digital asset space where it is often hard to demonstrate such rights given how quickly and easily digital works can be replicated. NFTs are described as ‘non-fungible’ because each one is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoin, which are identical and interchangeable.
Of course, the obvious, immediate benefit of NFT technology, then, is the function of the NFT as a digital “Certificate of Authenticity” and ownership. After decades of exhibiting their art on the unruly and unregulated internet, artists can now “mint” their digital art–ie create an NFT on the blockchain, certifying a unique and protected work. Additionally, artists can attach a stipulation of royalties to the NFT, so they make money on any subsequent resale of it–the absolute best outcome of blockchain technology, in my opinion.
But how unique and protected is the artwork? Herein is my first point of confusion: I took a screenshot of all the NFT works you see in this blog post. In what I thought was a remarkably ironic gesture, Sotheby’s even had a download button so anyone can save an mp4 file of Kevin McCoy’s Op art gif Quantum, which sold in their “Natively Digital”: curated NFT sale for a staggering $1,472,000 (below). Is there, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, an “aura of the original” in the metaverse (a crypto neologism I had to add to my vocabulary) if anyone can save an identical digital version online?
I have read some articles which liken the NFT artwork to an original painting, and any non-NFT copies are like posters of that painting that you see in dorm rooms. But this is not an accurate analogy: what differentiates an original painting from reproductions is the medium–the painting is a completely unique oil on canvas. The posters are glossy prints based on a photograph of that painting, churned out by the thousands–and the respective visual experience of the painting and poster is vastly different. With the digital artwork, the medium is pixels on a screen–whether an “original” or a screenshot of it (ie “reproduction”). The visual experience is essentially the same.
In reading more about the NFTs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I also learned that the digital artworks themselves often do not exist on the blockchain, but rather are hosted on servers “off-chain,” and the NFTs “point” to their offsite location. (This is to say nothing of physical assets, for which some claim NFTs can still be applied for “authentication.” But I think any art appraiser would tell you, that’s as uncertain a claim as a physical piece of paper that says “Certificate of Authenticity.”)
In the case of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, the condition report noted that “to avoid domain squatting, Namecoin [where he originally minted the NFT in 2014] was designed to include removal of pointers after 36,000 blocks. Accordingly, this specific Namecoin entry was removed from the system after not being renewed, and was effectively burned from the chain.” This concept alone was surprising, as I thought the appeal of blockchain technology was that it was full-proof and lasted forever.
It seems to me, then, that the blockchain doesn’t actually protect the artwork–it protects the certificate of authenticity and ownership (ie the NFT itself). And the utility and relevance of the NFT doesn’t actually come into play until a transaction is required–ie someone wants to sell the artwork. So I can enjoy my download of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum just as much as the guy who paid $1,472,000 for it. I just can’t sell it.
Or can I? If anyone can register NFTs, what’s to stop me from creating an NFT for the McCoy file I downloaded from Sotheby’s website? I can claim that undulating octagon as an original Emily Casden, and sell it with an NFT certifying it as my own–like a digital Sherrie Levine. Is there a blockchain police that cross-checks NFT artwork for fakes and forgeries? Sure, I’d be breaking copyright laws, but so far I can’t see how an NFT can prevent copyright laws from being broken.
Now before you think I must truly be some close-minded and conservative old hag, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against digital art itself. I think every medium of art–whether it is oil on a canvas, notes of a song, or pixels on a screen–can convey powerful meaning. I have seen digital artworks on my laptop that have moved me as much as any painting in a museum. And it’s worth noting that it is possible to sell limited edition digital works, and many galleries have been doing so long before NFTs existed. But, as with painting, or music, or any medium of art, there is a spectrum of quality: the good, the bad, and the stuff that just isn’t art. Which brings me to my next general “issue” with the NFT market…
The first NFT sold at auction–Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold at Christie’s in March for a jaw-dropping $69.3 million–was admittedly cool in its scope: a digital drawing every day for 5,000 days (from May 2007 to January 2021). The full collection allows one to see his evolution as an artist in a way that has never been documented and collated quite like this. But upon closer inspection, the digital illustrations were, let’s say, underwhelming. On the one hand, given the pressure of his daily output, the mediocrity is understandable; the famously prolific Picasso painted an average of two paintings a day, and certainly not all them are masterpieces. But largely, Beeple’s art is a product and paradigm of the Instagram age: easily digestible, pop culture pictures that have enough cynical wit to make you “like” them in your feed, and then keep on scrolling.
In a wildly over-the-top catalogue essay for Kevin McCoy’s five-second gif video Quantum (above), recently sold in Sotheby’s curated NFT sale “Natively Digital,” the Sotheby’s specialist says that Quantum is as historically significant as the modern masterworks that changed the course of art history. I will quote it at length, because it is so hilariously ridiculous:
In the long timeline of art, there are few works that serve as genesis blocks to their own chain of history. They are seismic forks in direction; forks that usher in new movements that block by block, mint by mint, usher in new art histories. These works close chapters on the art histories that came before, while anchoring a new flowering of human creativity. These prime movers occupy a singular position in art history. They came first...Pulsing with color, a riotously raw beacon to a new era, McCoy minted Quantum – unwittingly placing it within this vaulted pantheon of firsts. Timestamped July 1907, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles ushered in the chain of Cubism. December 1917, Malevich’s Black Square stands as the genesis block of Abstraction. April 1917, Duchamp timestamps the era of the idea [ie birth of Conceptualism]. 2nd May 2014 21:27:34, Quantum stands alone in the precision of its timestamp – immutably, verifiably, trustlessly pure. [Trustlessly?]
Mind you, there is absolutely nothing creatively innovative about Quantum as a work of art: all of its points of reference–Minimalism/Op art, animation art, video art–existed for decades before it was created. So why does the Sotheby’s specialist include McCoy in the pantheon of the creative geniuses Picasso, Malevich and Duchamp? Because Quantum was the first NFT artwork added to the blockchain. Was this a significant technological event? Sure. So was the company that bought the first website domain name in 1985. Do you know who it is? Do you care? Didn’t think so.
Lastly, there’s CryptoPunks, Larva Labs’s digital collection of 10,000 8-bit style “punks” that was minted (ie added to the blockchain) in 2017. It was a smart entrepreneurial endeavor: their pixelated style appeals to a nostalgic generation raised on Atari video games, and the distinguishing attributes of each unique character–men, women, zombies, aliens and apes with various combinations of hats, glasses, cigarettes, facial hair, etc–feed the “collect-them-all” mentality. But I would argue these definitely fall in the collectibles category, not art.
There is certainly nothing wrong with collectibles; they can have legitimate appeal and value. Exchanging coveted assets within a subculture of likeminded fans can be exciting; the hunt to acquire the rarest of your treasures can be a lifelong thrill. But that does not art make. I’ve been staring at these CryptoPunk avatars for several hours, and I’m just not detecting a heartbeat. Art has to have something to say. Are they cool? Yes. Fun? For sure. But these are the digital equivalents of trading cards, dare I say Beanie Babies (which would be bad news for whoever bought CryptoPunk 7523 for $11,754,000 in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” sale last month).
Ultimately, my point is this: I think the mania over NFT technology is hyping up some absolutely mediocre art and collectibles. To be sure, there have been some really interesting digital works that have been minted as NFTs, but they did not need to be minted to be interesting, and could have just as easily been sold as limited editions without blockchain technology. And much of what I am seeing minted and traded as NFTs are just not that interesting. I think M.H. Miller said it well in his recent New York Times piece:
Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.
The good news is, I don’t think this is the future for all of us. I do firmly understand and believe that blockchain is a groundbreaking technology that has major implications for our future technological landscape–I think it will inevitably be part of our lives the same way the internet did. But I do not think that art is going to go purely NFT on us. Digital art is merely one of many mediums of expression; we still live and exist in a physical plane, and so does much of our art. And as of now, NFTs really can’t do much for physical artwork.
So, before you jump onto the NFT bandwagon, ask yourself a few questions: first and foremost, do you like the art? Does the price reflect the quality of the art? Or possibly the hype of NFTs? If you’re not sure, do some research (or hire me to help you!) to better contextualize the piece within the artist’s market.
In case you missed it: the Art Basel /UBS Global Art Market Report came out in March, and noted that global sales for art and antiques in 2020 were down 22% from 2019 ($50.1 billion). But if the spring 2021 auction season is any indication–with several 8-figure lots and many broken records for artists–we’ll be returning to a pre-pandemic market in no time.
Before diving into the sales themselves, I’d like to say a few words about a few words–literally. There have been some interesting category changes in auctions that signal the power of words to reflect the changing landscape of art collecting. As I reported in my December 2020 blog post, last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s used the occasion of the pandemic to experiment with format, offering a confusing array of day sales, evening sales, and global relay sales.
This season, Christie’s announced that it would be doing away with its “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” designations all together, and instead offered a “20th Century” evening sale, and a “21st Century” evening sale. These adjustments are semantic rather than literal, however, as the 20th century sale still includes works dating back to the 1880s (ie Impressionist/Post Impressionist), while works dating back to the 1980s are included in the 21st century sale. BUT, to still make things confusing, the “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” titles still apply to the day sales (insert shrug emoji).
Sotheby’s has also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon, dropping “Postwar” from its auction headline, so it just reads “Contemporary Art evening sale,” even though the sale does still include postwar art. In another notable case of wordsmithing, Sotheby’s has also taken “Old” out of their “Old Masters” sales, so the auction instead is simply called “Master Paintings.” I must say, this is one rebranding strategy I can understand: the word “Old” certainly has more negative connotations than, say, the word “Impressionist.” And it can’t hurt the struggling Old Masters–excuse me, the Masters–market. It completely worked on me as clickbait.
Now, on to the sales themselves. As always, I focus only on New York because, frankly, it would be overwhelming to cover sales in Europe and Asia too. (NOTE: I have addressed this season’s NFT works and auctions in a separate post). Christie’s 20th and 21st Century evening sales together grossed over $691 million; in the 20th century sale, 98% of the lots sold above their low estimate–many surpassed their high estimates. And some standout pieces helped push the sales past the half a billion mark.
A few artists also had new auction records in the 20th Century sale: Alice Neel, no doubt buoyed by her current retrospective at the Met, set a new record when her 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room sold for over $3 million, nearly 4 times its high estimate of $800,000 and doubling her previous record. She was followed in the next lot by Barbara Hepworth’s Parent II sculpture (1971), which burst past its high estimate of $3.5 million to sell fora record $7,110,000. New auction records were also set for Grace Hartigan and Alighiero Boetti.
As for Christie’s 21st Century evening sale (ie Postwar and Contemporary sale), the masterpiece that drove the sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), which inspired competitive bidding all the way up to $93,105,000–the second highest auction price for the artist (illustrated below).
A whopping ten artists–six of whom are people of color–had sales records broken in this 21st Century sale, continuing the collecting trend for black contemporary artists. Jordan Casteel, who exhibited a lovely show of portraits at the New Museum last year, set a new record with his portrait Jiréh from 2013 when it sold for $687,500. Nina Chanel Abney’s 2015 canvas Untitled (XXXXXX), painted in the aftermath of the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement), catapulted beyond its pre-sale estimate of $200,000 – 300,000 to sell for just under $1 million (illustrated below). And (white guy) Jonas Wood also set a record when his colorful still life Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013) achieved over $6.5 million, more than 50% over the high estimate of $4 million (illustrated below).
Now, on to Sotheby’s evenings sales! While Sotheby’s had a few standout works, their auctions were decidedly less robust than Christie’s: together the Impressionist & Modern and (Postwar) & Contemporary sales brought $439,639,200, more than a $250 million less than Christie’s equivalent sales. In the Impressionist & Modern category, the big ticket item was Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, a classic late water lily canvas (1917-19), which brought $70,353,000.
A few other works that sold well include Leonor Fini’s delightful self-portrait with a scorpion (Autoportrait au scorpion) from 1938, which soared to three times past its high estimate ($800,000) to sell for $2,319,000; and Diego Rivera’s exquisitely elegant Retrato de Columba Domínguez de Fernández (1950), sold more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring $7,445,250 (each illustrated below).
Several other works in the Sotheby’s sale, however, sold around their low estimate or, in some cases, below it. Paul Cézanne’s fruit still lifes are usually top sellers, but the Nature morte: pommes et poires that was in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern auction sold for $19,969,350, a far, far cry from its $25 – 35 million estimate (illustrated below). Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting Tondo No. 65 (1965) also sold well below its $600,000 – 800,000 estimate to bring $403,200 (illustrated below). And Les Coteaux de Thierceville, temps gris, a typical landscape by Camille Pissarro, sold for $1.472 million, just under its $1.5 – 2 million estimate.
Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale generally fared better than its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, although overall the offerings did not excite bidders as much as the equivalent Christie’s sale did. The big ticket item was Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982), which just about sold at the high end of its $35 – 50 million pre-sale estimate ($50,820,000)–not quite as impressive as the $93 million Basquiat at Christie’s, but the highest grosser of the night for Sotheby’s.
There were some impressive sales, however: newcomer Salman Toor has had an explosive few years, capped with his recent wonderful, intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, which included The Arrival, the third lot in Sotheby’s sale. With a modest pre-estimate of $60 – 80,000, the 18 x 14-inch painting sold for a whopping 10 times its high estimate, finally bringing $867,000. This was the auction record for the young artist until Girl with Driver sold a few weeks later for almost $890,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong. (Mind you, Girl with Driver is 60 x 78 inches, so, inch for inch, tiny little The Arrival takes the cake!)
A few other highlights of the sale include Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), which reached $15,315,900, surpassing its $9 – 12 million estimate. Charles White’s The Ingram Case (1949), depicting the incarcerated Ingram family (whose murder trial of a white neighbor underscored the institutionalized racism of the time), is as timely and evocative now as ever. The powerful drawing achieved $1,472,000, more than double its high estimate ($500,000 – 700,000). As with Christie’s contemporary auction, the high prices achieved by these few artists reflect the continued strong interest in artists of color.
Last but not least, another noteworthy highlight is Banksy’s famous Love is in the Air (2005), depicting a masked protester throwing a bouquet of roses (rather than the expected molotov cocktail). With a pre-sale estimate of $3 – 5 million, the canvas ultimately brought nearly $13 million. It was the only lot in the sale that accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.
And speaking of cryptocurrency, I bet you’re all wondering why I haven’t addressed this season’s auctioned NFTs yet. I have written a separate post regarding the NFT craze here. Enjoy!
A rather odd experiment has come out of the COVID pandemic—although it’s unclear if it really has anything to do with the pandemic—and that’s the merging of departments to create a sale of mixed 19th, 20th and 21st century works. With a few rare exceptions—da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundiand a T-Rex fossil were both recently sold in contemporary art sales—the decades-long modus operandi of the auction world has been to host sales in the category of Impressionist and Modern art separately from Postwar and Contemporary art. This year amidst COVID, Christie’s started a trend of doing a global “relay” sale, which starts in Asia in the evening, and seamlessly continues in New York the same morning. Now, this December, Sotheby’s offered its first Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sale, based in New York.
But, to make it more confusing, Sotheby’s also still offered its normal day and evening sales in New York in the separate categories of Impressionist and Modern, and Postwar and Contemporary (October 28th). Christie’s also still offered daytime sales in both categories in New York (December 3rd and 4th), and a few hours before the global relay sale on December 2nd, Christie’s also held a Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong, with offerings from an international but largely Asian-leaning roster of artists. Then there was a “separate” auction at 8 pm for a single work of art: Sanyu’s fantastic Goldfish (1930s-40s) which sold for about $21,950,000 (170,170,000 HKD). Then the relay auction—”20th Century: Hong Kong to New York”—finally officially began at 8:30 PM.
What was the point of these mixed sale experiments? There is undoubtedly a utility to separating art by category, so that a collector of, say, Cubism, knows to follow the Impressionist & Modern sales. But, given that the “connoisseur” collector seems to be a dying breed, perhaps the auction houses think it makes more sense to separate buyers by price point, and organize their sales not by date/style, but by quality. This is, in fact, how other auction departments can function—a jewelry or furniture department will separate out its “exquisite” from its “fine” property, for example (and technically, the house’s daytime and evening sales already do this separation of “fine” and “exquisite”). But will this condensing of 150 years of art really make a difference for the art market? Or does this model only further commodify art, and further stratify collectors: the ultra-wealthy collectors and everyone else? All I know is, it’s been highly confusing trying to track these sales, and I’ll go crazy trying to recap all of this, so we’re going to focus on these hybrid sales to see how they did.
At Christie’s in Hong Kong, where daily reported cases remain low, the auction house hosted a hybrid format of live auction—with dealers and collectors in the audience—and remote bidding via phones and online. With New York’s infection rate tipping towards 5%, bidding remained remote. The sale started off fairly strong in Hong Kong, with a handful of world records set for artists: Dana Schutz’s 2017 Elevator—which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with her controversial painting of Emmett Till—sold for more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring about $6.5 million (50,050,000 HKD), shattering her previous record of $2.4 million set last year.
Baba Diop (2019), a portrait by the new art world darling Amoako Boafo, sold for $1.14 million (8,890,000 HKD), shattering the record his painting The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) set in February earlier this year at Phillips in London $880,900 (675,000 GPB). Like many emerging artists, Boafo has expressed displeasure that collectors are flipping his works for such steep profits. And the very much under-appreciated French postwar artist Georges Mathieu set a new record for his explosive Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria)from 1978, which brought $2.23 million (17,290,000 HKD).
The New York leg of the auction was a more muted affair, with several works hammering at or below their pre-sale estimates, including Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can(1962; $6 million with fees), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée (c. 1917; $2.19 million with fees), and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which, even with the buyer’s premium, didn’t break its low estimate of $1.2 million (it sold for $1.014 million). Is it possible that the lack of live audience made for less energetic bidding than the Hong Kong side of the sale? Possibly.
The real winner and standout piece of New York’s offerings in the relay sale was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunning painting of his favorite model, Carmen Gaudin, called Pierrusefrom 1889. The painting came from the collection of automotive mogul Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before. The provenance no doubt helped the painting burst past its estimate of $3–5 million, selling for just over $9 million with fees.
Sotheby’s hybrid sale, spanning 150 years of art, had a healthy total hammer value of $52.9 million against a cumulative pre-sale estimate of $40.1–58.6 million. The sale started off with a bang with Barkley L. Hendrick’s excellent Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, which broke through its pre-sale estimate of $2–3 million to sell for just over $4 million with fees—a new record for the late artist.
The next headline grabber was Alexander Calder’s fabulous mobile, Mariposa (1951). This piece came from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus, which is selling off its holdings since filing for bankruptcy. The mobile sold for more than double its high estimate, or $18 million with fees.
The other big surprise of the evening came with Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave, a 48 x 60-inch oil on canvas dated to 2017. Tragically, the artist committed suicide in 2019 just as his career was taking off. But, as one might expect, the death of the artist makes for a finite inventory, which has accelerated his market: Pink Wave exploded past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 400,000 to sell for $2.35 million with fees. Believe it or not, that makes it only the third highest auction result for the late artist.
Despite these marquee prices, the success of Sotheby’s hybrid sale is misleading: one might be confused by the mention of Milton Avery and Edvard Munch works in the press release, neither of which was included in the sale. Artnet reports that nearly twenty-percent of the entire sale was withdrawn prior to the auction, ostensibly because tepid pre-sale interest augured poor results. No bueno.
Are these hybrid sales worth it? I’m not yet convinced, but obviously it’s a new experiment that needs further testing.
2020 was a challenging year for the art world—galleries and art fairs certainly reported lower sales, and many arts professionals find themselves under- or unemployed. But, as we have seen with the ever-widening wealth gap in this country, the ultra-wealthy have been doing just fine. Sure, some have tightened their purchases and prioritized other investments in this economic downturn, and the market reflects some of that conservatism. But with artist records still being broken, and many millions still spent on blue chip artists, the .01% are still keen to buy art. Unfortunately, only .01% of galleries and artists are benefitting from this patronage. I may be one of the few art advisors you’ll hear say this, but here it is: we need the market to continue to contract before the art world implodes.
As it did for its other two iterations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, Art Basel of course had to take its Miami Beach art fair online due to COVID. But apparently the pandemic didn’t stop sales; according to a few media reports, Art Basel Miami Beach’s online version generally sold better than other virtual art fairs this year. Could it be the promise of the vaccine that spurred consumer confidence? The fact that the election is behind us? Or were the offerings just more enticing to buyers at Art Basel Miami Beach? Hard to say.
It turns out that scouring online viewing rooms (OVRs)–which are no different than websites, but they’ve kindly included pricing in a nice and very rare touch of transparency–is just as exhausting as going through these massive art fairs in person. Alas, my eyeballs were sore before I could see every OVR, but I’ve included below a few highlights from what I saw, and, when available, pricing info.
Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York offered some lovely postwar works, including this cosmically explosive 1957 painting by Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), for between $50,000 – 75,000 (24 x 24 inches). The American artist (1910-1983) was a private, outsider artists whose art was not discovered until after he died.
This stunning photograph by Kwame Brathwaite (American, b. 1938) at once draws on classic Northern Renaissance portraiture, but also feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Philip Martin Gallery (Los Angeles) sold the work in the range of $4,000 – 12,000, a great deal if you ask me, especially since the artist has an upcoming retrospective at the Blanton Museum of Art (June – September, 2021).
Pae White‘s intricate, luminous 42 x 42-inch mixed media work Luna (2020), caught my eye—and someone else’s, because it was sold by the time I saw it. White (American, b. 1963) calls these works “Paper Tapestry Paintings,” and her dealer, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery of Milan and New York, notes that the shimmer is achieved with car enamel over paper clay on wood panel. Preeeettty….
Can’t afford Joan Mitchell (whose untitled 1956 painting sold at David Zwirner for $1.2 million), or the other mid-century abstractionists? Try Elizabeth Neel (American, b. 1975), the granddaughter of famed figure painter Alice Neel (whose Estate Zwirner also represents, and sold Neel’s portrait of Aaron Kramer for $750,000). Salon 94 was selling some lovely pieces by the younger Neel at ABMB, including this fantastic acrylic on canvas, Scanning the Meridian Sun (2020, 46 x 76 inches). Sold by the time I saw it, so price unknown, but other abstract works by the artist were in the range of $45,000 – 65,000.
Where’s the party? Nicholas Party is blowing up right now: his 2014 StillLife of pears set his auction record at Christie’s this month, bringing about $1.35 million (10,450,000 HKD), and at Art Basel, artnet reports at least three works of his selling, including this arresting pastel on linen Portrait with Red Flowers (2020) from Hauser & Wirth for $300,000.
I do love me some American regionalist art. Hirschl & Adler‘s “Of the People” online exhibition featured figurative artists who “have grappled with the human condition in all its multi-faceted depth and complexity.” Among the lovely collection of 20th century works was this impressive 1953 canvas by Jules Kirschenbaum (American, 1930-2000), titled Without the Hope of Dreams (86 x 39 inches), available for $135,000. (Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler, New York.)
I wish I could cover more, but alas, there’s just too much good art. I’ll leave you with this numinous and mesmerizing video work from Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, b. 1969), Reckoning (2020; ed. of 7 + 2 APs). Available from Sean Kelly Gallery for $75,000. I have admired Sikander’s mosaic works, but this is the first video work I’ve seen. I dig it. The artist has a traveling show opening at The Morgan Library in New York in June 2021.
These are just some of the common descriptors for Elijah Burgher’s arresting work. The artist (b. 1978 in Kingston, NY) creates intricately executed drawings and mixed media works that blur queer imagery with mystical iconography and ritualistic themes. Before Burgher’s work, I had never considered the confluence of queerness and the occult, but operating as they do on the fringe of bourgeois society (like the avant-garde), and relying on coded forms of expression and interpretation, the queer and mystical make logical bedfellows.
Burgher works in both abstraction and mixed imagery of portraits overlaid with abstraction. There is something holy and innocent about his portraits, and his colorful language of abstraction, called sigils, are “private motifs readable only to the maker unless shared with others and, even then, only for as long as they can be remembered,” writes curator Claire Gilman. “A product of twentieth-century occult magic (although variations have been used since the Neolithic era), sigils were adopted by the artist and his friends ten years ago as a way of encoding queer desire. In this sense, they relate to the queer community’s privileging of secrecy and private initiation.” But in their vibrant display, the sigils do not alienate the viewer, but invite us to investigate their meaning.
For years the artist’s preferred medium was drawing–a medium that, with its gestural presence and record of time, is a ritual of creation itself. As a medium typically treated as an “exercise” or preparatory stage to painting, Burgher feels that drawing deserves more credit as an end in and of itself: “A drawing’s content is always held at arm’s length, not only because of the structure of representation, but because of the aforementioned promise of application–in the future and elsewhere, in real time and space, in life,” the artist wrote in 2013. “This is drawing’s link to magic.”
Dr. Clare McAndrew—cultural economist and mastermind behind Art Basel/UBS’s market reports—and her team recently released a special mid-2020 survey on how the COVID pandemic has impacted the gallery sector. Let’s take a look at the data.
As one might expect, “the business model of galleries—based fundamentally on discretionary spending and strongly dependent on travel and in-person contact—is uniquely positioned to struggle in the present realities of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report states. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, in 2020 many art fairs that attract international audiences moved to online viewing rooms, and nearly half of gallery exhibitions were cancelled or postponed.
As a result, comparing the first half of 2020 to the same period in 2019, galleries reported a 36% drop in the value of their sales, with a median of 43% (see fig. 1). Smaller galleries, with a turnover of less than $500,000, reported the largest declines in sales. Asia was hit harder than other parts of the world.
Galleries had to permanently lay off or furlough between 27–38% of their employees in the first six months of the pandemic (fig. 2). Some were able to rehire about 5–9% of their staff. Small and mid-size galleries were already in precarious financial positions before the pandemic hit, unable to keep pace with what Jerry Satlz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries. And according to the Art Basel/UBS report, some galleries, especially in smaller markets, felt that public or government assistance was harder for them to come by than their peers in larger markets.
Unsurprisingly, in lieu of attending fairs and galleries in person, online sales rose from 10% of total sales in 2019 to 37% of sales in the first half of 2020 (see figs. 3 & 4). Whereas previous data indicated a spending cap of about $100,000 for online sales, according to the new survey, high net worth individuals (HNWI) are now willing to spend seven figures through online sales, as galleries that average $10 million-plus sales reported 38% increase in online sales.
Although overall sales were significantly down (fig. 1), a whopping 92% of the surveyed HNWI said they bought a work of art in 2020; 52% said they had paid prices in excess of $100,000 (fig. 5). And despite economic hardship endured across the country, 59% said the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting (31% said “significantly” so). They are certainly taking advantage of the “buyer’s market.”
As a result of their downward sales, and the apparent eagerness of the HNWI individuals to continue to purchase art through the pandemic, “the majority of galleries also shifted their focus in 2020 from widening their base of buyers to ensuring that they maintained relationships with existing clients who are seen to be critical to their survival,” the report states.
Art Basel/UBS report is unsettling to me, because the art world is a microcosm of the larger gross income inequality of this country. Let us remember that the economy is in a recession due to COVID. Millions of Americans are on unemployment, and according to Feeding America, 54 million Americans face food insecurity in 2020 (including 18 million children). Not only have many Americans gotten poorer, but, remarkably, the wealthiest have continued to grow their wealth in this recession: The Guardian reports that America’s billionaires grew their wealth an extraordinary $637 billion in just a 3 month period, from March to June—that’s equal to three quarters of all Black wealth, and more than all the wealth of our country’s 59 million Latinx people.
Similarly, Dr. McAndrews’s report demonstrates how the devastation of the pandemic impacts those at the bottom of the art world pyramid, so to speak—small galleries, art industry employees, and artists—while the wealthiest Americans remain largely untouched by the economic impact. For decades, the art world has structured itself to cater to the ultra-rich, and the galleries’ own admission in this report that they are focusing their energies on maintaining the relationships of their clients that are “critical to their survival,” underscores how the market is structured to cater to and depend on the ultra-rich.
Most art world professionals are probably relieved to see such healthy spending: after Sotheby’s online sale in June, one art advisor proclaimed to the New York Times that there was “absolute confidence in art as an asset class.” But the truth is, this apparently flourishing market is only benefitting a very, very slim portion of galleries, artists and buyers, as another art advisor noted in The New York Times: “Sales are down across the board, but there’s an incredible amount of wealth chasing the rarest of the rarest…There’s a real disconnect between who’s hurting and who isn’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.” Such a simple but poignant statement. Just like the grander picture of American late stage capitalism that we find ourselves in, we must recognize that this gross income inequality and wealth hoarding is unsustainable. Art is for everyone, and we need to create economic and business structures that support a healthy middle class, small businesses, and the staff and artists who depend on them. It’s simply better for everyone.
To download a free copy of the full Art Basel/UBS report, click here.
If you saw my blog post from February, you’ll have seen that I am incorporating a more spiritual approach to my work as an art advisor; I want to empower my clients to realize they already have the tools to connect to art in profound ways—that is, they need only to cultivate their innate ability of mindfulness to “get” a work of art (to learn more, check out my short tutorial video on Mindfulness & Art). With this mindset, I consider it my duty to cultivate my clients’ mindful understanding of the art, as much as it is my duty to share my expertise on the art.
In essence, I am drawing a distinction between knowledge—information that is learned through study and investigation—and wisdom, which is the type of knowledge learned through (mindful) experience. As an art expert, I can bring my knowledge on such-and-such artist, or historical movement, or provide a market analysis on an artwork. But mindfulness must come from within the client, and so too shall the wisdom s/he gains from an art encounter.
Some art advisors or scholars might scoff at the suggestion that someone could understand art through mindfulness; how ‘woo-woo’! And aren’t I dismissing the importance of scholarship? I would answer with a resounding no: knowledge is powerful, and study is important. I am rather trying to move away from the pretentious elitism that has become synonymous with the art world (literally—if you search “pretentious” on thesaurus.com, “arty” is first on the list), to open up art to those who think it is inaccessible to them. Art is for everybody, and mindfulness is the tool to make it available to everybody.
To illustrate this distinction between intuitive understanding and what can sometimes be the blind pretention of the “experts,” I wanted to share a personal story. A few months ahead of my freshman year at Williams College, I received the thick course catalog to choose my classes for the fall semester. My father, an alumnus of the school, told me that his only regret from his college days was that he never took a course in art history—one of Williams’ most distinguished and famous departments—and he encouraged me to take a class. My family always put great value in the arts, and we took regular trips to New York City to take in museum shows, theater, and the occasional ballet. But I had no formal training or understanding of art, and it sounded interesting. So, I took his advice and enrolled in Art History 101 for my freshman fall term, which covered a survey of architecture. By the time we got to the gothic cathedrals of Europe, I knew I was hooked. I eagerly signed up for part two of Art History 101 in the spring semester—a survey of painting and sculpture. By the time spring rolled around, I knew I wanted to major in art history.
Early in the spring term, we were assigned a formal analysis paper. A formal analysis is a discussion of a work of art based solely on what you see—the color, brushwork, style, composition, etc. (these are called the “formal qualities” of a work of art). We were given strict instructions that we could not look up anything about the artist or artwork we were assigned, beyond the bare bones of the artist’s name, the artwork’s title, and its size and medium. If there was evidence we had done research, we would essentially get an F.
I was assigned an oil on cardboard work by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called Jane Avril (1891-92), in the collection of the Clark Art Institute, the world-class museum in our sleepy little college town. Fueled by my newfound love of art, I walked to the Clark with excited anticipation to take in this artwork: what I encountered was a half-length portrait of a woman, dressed in a purple cape overcoat with a fur trim. Her grand, high collar cradled a long, white-painted face, framed by flat yellow hair, which was, in turn, crowned with a lavish hat, replete with feathers, drawn in rich blue and green hues. Hurried green and blue strokes surrounded the figure, but the artist also left much of the cardboard ground exposed.
I did not know who Jane Avril was. At that point, I don’t even think I knew who Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was, either—we hadn’t gotten to post-Impressionism yet. But that was the point: just take in the art, and justify your conclusions based on what you see. I looked at her outfit: she must be outside, as she’s wearing an overcoat and hat. If she’s outside, the falling blue and green paint strokes could be rain, then, I thought. With few details in the work, I spent a long time studying her face. Her facial features were severe: a sharp, pointy chin; thin, pursed lips, painted bright red; a sharp nose leading to small, beady eyes under heavy, swollen lids. I followed her gaze, which was directed off to her left to a strong light source, unseen to the viewer. If she’s outside, perhaps it’s the headlights of a car, or possibly a street lamp, I thought. Were cars invented by 1891? Well, not sure I can look it up…Oh well, whatever the source, the light was harsh and unforgiving.
Ultimately, I concluded, this was not a flattering portrait: this woman looked haggard, and her sharp features were downright unattractive. The raking light cast shadows in the bags under her weary eyes, and made her face look gaunt. Her high, arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave her tired expression a hint of haughtiness. As she seemed finely dressed, perhaps this was an upper-class woman, putting on airs. But, with her averted gaze, she also seemed preoccupied—her mind somewhere else, off in the lights to her left. Whoever this Jane Avril was, she had seen better days.
I sat in front of the work for an hour and a half. Only recently did I realize that this time spent in front of the work was a practice in mindfulness; I was solely focused on the artwork, staying in the present moment—just me and the art. Through awareness, presence, patience and compassion—a true commitment to feel and understand the work—I unpacked the work’s meaning through mindfulness. I wrote a paper that I was immensely proud of—it was well-written, and well-argued. Nailed it, I thought.
A few weeks later we got our papers back, and I was devastated to see I had gotten a B- on the paper. As an overachieving nerd, I was unaccustomed to Bs, but I was especially shocked because as a pre-art history major, I was so invested in the subject. I requested to meet with the professor for my section to discuss my grade.
“Jane Avril was a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec’s—he wouldn’t paint an unflattering portrait of her,” this professor (who shall remain nameless) said. I was flabbergasted. I walked her through each formal quality to justify my argument. “Jane Avril was a performer at the Moulin Rouge,” she retorted. “She’s wearing heavy makeup for the stage, and that bright light is the stage lights.” I pointed out to her that every single fact she just stated was based on research that I was not allowed to do. How could I know Jane Avril was a stage performer? In the portrait, she’s dressed to be outside, so if the light is stage light, it must be symbolic. There’s no logical way I could conclude those are stage lights based on the artwork alone! And besides, these facts still didn’t detract from my primary argument: this still was an unflattering portrait of a haggard woman. But the professor refused to acknowledge my arguments, and, of course, refused to change my grade.
In the professor’s eyes, I didn’t “get” the artwork because I did not conclude that this woman was a cabaret performer. Nearly twenty years later, I still think the professor was wrong. I would argue that I absolutely “got it:” Henri Toulouse-Lautrec painted a portrait of an exhausted woman who is not present with the viewer, because she’s lost in a haze of her thoughts. If you know the context of who Jane Avril was, then those details begin to flesh out one’s understanding: she’s exhausted because she performs cabaret late into the night. So, she is dressed in her coat because she’s likely leaving the theater in the early hours of the morning, and she’s drained. The context of knowing Jane Avril’s identity helps explain her puffy eyes and tired expression, but at the end of the day, as the viewer, all you see are the puffy eyes and tired expression. There are almost no other details in the painting, other than her face. The fact that she’s a cabaret performer is ancillary.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, lithographic poster.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893, lithographic poster.
In fact, the fact that we are not seeing Jane Avril on stage only underscores that this is a psychological portrait—that is, Toulouse-Lautrec is more interested in her interior mood offstage, not Jane-Avril-The-Performer. Compare this work, for instance, to many other depictions of Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec: he created several works in which Avril is on stage singing with arms open wide, or dancing, with legs flailing. Obviously, we can conclude that she’s a performer in those! In the work at the Clark Art Institute, however, her body is hidden, contained by the heavy coat. Her expression is withdrawn, and again—tired. This is not Jane Avril of the stage.
In a more complete painting from about the same time (1892) called Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec again depicts Avril outside, in street clothes, by herself. Like the portrait from the Clark, this is a psychological portrait: without the descriptive title, you would not know who she is or what she does. The focus is on her mood: she seems lost in thought, and there’s a loneliness to her countenance as she walks the street by herself. The portrait at the Clark Art Institute is closer to this work than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of her onstage.
Can I feel my ego seeking vindication even twenty years, later? OK, yes (settle down, ego!). But my point, ultimately, is to use this example to draw the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Learning the context of the work of art—i.e. obtaining knowledge through research and scholarship—can greatly enhance your understanding. My professor, as a scholar, searches for truth through research and investigation. But her mistake is that she believed that enlightenment only comes through acquiring the investigative knowledge—that is, without properly identifying Jane Avril as a performer, I must not have understood the painting.
In actuality, the fact that Jane Avril was a cabaret star was hardly the point of the portrait; the actual purpose of the painting was to portray an introspective moment for a weary woman at the end of a long night of work. And I did get that—I understood the painting on an intuitive level, without knowing who Jane Avril was. Why? Because she’s human, and I’m human, and I recognized the universal experience we share. And this is an illustration of wisdom: knowledge acquired through the mindful experience of being human. Knowledge and wisdom are complementary forces, and important to our understanding of the world.
I firmly believe that if you sit down in front of a work of art and apply the principles of mindfulness—that is, if you stay present, in the moment; maintain awareness; have patience and take your time (it could take hours!); and endeavor for compassionate understanding—the meaning of that work of art will likely reveal itself to you. You will “get it.” There may be historical, cultural or social references that you won’t catch based solely on what you see, but with a truly good work of art, its truth will transcend those limitations, and you will still understand the truth of the artwork.
And what is that truth? All art is an expression of our higher selves, and when we experience a work of art and truly “get it,” we are seeing our reflection of our higher selves. And it is a beautiful, transcendental feeling.
I was devastated to learn yesterday that my mentor and friend, Maurice Berger, was tragically taken by the coronavirus on March 23rd. I wanted to take a moment to honor this great man, and what he meant to me.
I met Maurice when I was working at The Jewish Museum. Maurice was what you might generally call a “cultural critic:” his true specialty was civil rights (you may have read his posts for the New York Timeslens blog from 2012-2019), and he was a professor and chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But he also had a deep knowledge of and connection to the Jewish community; Maurice had been involved in The Jewish Museum over the decades in various, often unseen ways, consulting on projects or institutional strategy. I first got to know him more intimately when he wrote a catalogue essay for the show The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, on which I worked as a curatorial assistant.
In 2012, Maurice officially took the title of “consulting curator” with TJM, and selected me to be his assistant in the early planning stages of his show Revolution of the Eye, an exhibition about the influence of television on art, and the use of TV as a medium for artistic innovation in its own right. The exhibition, which opened in 2015, was beautiful and thought-provoking. Maurice was bright, enthusiastic, and patient as a supervisor as we worked on it in those early stages. But he would come to mean a lot more to me.
About a year later, I found myself in a very difficult situation, professionally; in the blink of an eye, I saw my promising career trajectory take a sudden detour, and I was feeling helpless, incredibly upset, and above all, alone. Of the several people I counted as professional mentors and friends, it was Maurice who stepped in to talk me off the ledge, so to speak. He patiently listened to me vent my confusion and anger through tearful phone calls over the next few weeks, and provided compassionate wisdom and comfort. He reminded me of all my great strengths and gifts, and while my final year at TJM was a tough one, I never would have gotten through it without Maurice.
Maurice was a truly special man, brilliant scholar, and warm soul. The world is a little less bright without him in it. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.
There’s a lot of good art at the Armory Show—too much to be able to write about everything I liked. So, forgive the brief format, but I will just post pictures and descriptions for a selection of the art that I enjoyed, with the exception of a fantastic show of work by the artist Cassils—the highlight of the whole fair, which deserves a few words, in my opinion.
There has been an admirable and long overdue uptick in transgender representation in the last ten years or so, both in popular culture and fine arts. Unfortunately, in tandem with this increase in transgender visibility has been an uptick in fatal hate crimes against the trans and queer community. In a layered body of work at Ronald Feldman Gallery’s booth at the Armory, the artist Cassils (b. 1975) memorialized the victims of such violence, whilst also celebrating the resilience and beauty of the transgender body.
In a live performance called Becoming an Image, which has been performed several times since 2012, the artist beats up a 2,000 pound slab of clay in complete pitch darkness. No one in the audience can see the artist–who is nearly or completely naked–including the photographer documenting the event; they can only hear Cassils’ grunts, moans, punches and slaps against the clay. When the photographer snaps a photo, it creates a brief flash of illumination for all to see what’s happening. Cassils’ act of aggression on the clay is an act of cathartic anger, even revenge, in response to the invisibility of and violence against the LGBTQ community. But simultaneously, the performance is a fierce and true celebration of the trans body that is still largely invisible in our culture: in the dramatically lit photographs from the performances, Cassils’ naked rippling body is powerful and beautiful.
The artist did not perform Becoming an Image at the Armory Show, but their representing gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, presented a wonderful selection of the stills from a 2018 performance. Also on view was a 2016 bronze cast of the brutalized slab of clay called The Resilience of the 20%, referring to the 20% increase in murders of trans people worldwide since 2012. What a beautiful and affective installation.
Enjoy these other works by some top notch artists as well! The images are linked to the artists’ websites, or their representing galleries.
Gorgeous watercolors by Guo Hongwei, presented by Chambers Fine Art:
It is strange and unsettling times we’re living in, but I will keep on posting to share good art. Because Art is Love, and Love is Healing!
Spring/Break this year was huge, and I am sorry to say I ran out of steam and could not see everything, so note that my highlights may be missing some real winners. The theme of “in excess” was interpreted in a myriad of ways, although many artists took it to its more literal iteration of decadent neo-Pop (think Takashi Murakami, with more bedazzling). I get the message—it’s hard not to, it really hits you over the head—but I admit, I can only take so much of that aesthetic before I get queasy. Candylands aside, there was some really lovely works that I enjoyed:
Christopher Chan’s installation As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold (room 1011) was great. It had the right amount of bedazzling in the form of the glittery, shimmery wallpaper. The real stars of the show are the painted wood dolls of stylish, urban characters. Chan, who, unsurprisingly, is also a commercial designer, activated the dolls in a stop motion animation called “Honorroller, Champion Edition” on display in a retro arcade game nearby, the paneling replaced with marbled plastic. Outside the installation, the artist created a bed in a retro-looking racecar. When I tried searching the web for more on As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold, the only hit that return was a reference to an episode of the Simpsons.
Geoffrey Owen Miller’s spectral, shimmering woodland scene, reflected in the black glass of the upside down, was beautiful and quietly unsettling. On the gallery website for this work, the artist quotes Jorge Luis Borges’s book Book of Imaginary Beings: “Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated.”
On the walls surrounding Miller’s installation were abstractions rendered intensely in graphite; the artist’s dexterity with the pencil creates an array of texture and dimensionality (unfortunately, I cannot locate the artist’s name for the graphite drawings). Both were presented by 5-50 Gallery in Long Island City (room 1035).
“Fragments of Luxury,” a group show presented by the New York Artists Equity Association (room 1044), was a selection of lovely works. I particularly enjoyed Pablo Garcia Lopez’s molded silk tableaus, recreating the decadent baroque compositions of Old Master religious scenes, like the Ascension (the artists calls the works “Silk bassreliefs” [sic]). Krista LaBella’s Pearl Necklace polaroids, in which pearl necklaces, food, flowers and other objects are tossed across the artist’s ample bosom, were a compelling commentary on decadence, sex, femininity, and various cultural associations we have for the female body as a site of consumption, and the objects themselves. Christopher Scott Marshall’s sculpture Life I Might Of (2019) is not the most arresting of the works that one can peruse on his website, but is still nice. And lastly, Aaron Miller’s coal dusted works pay homage to the coal mining heritage of his hometown in Wyoming, merged with more classical portraiture or genre scenes.
Philadelphia-based artist Lyn Godley’s light pieces Currents blew my mind a little: these colorful scenes, reminiscent of auroras or mystical landscapes, are not in fact videos, as they seem, but an arrangement of films (Mylar, dichroic, mirrored, etc.) bending and reflecting an LED lightshow within the artwork. That’s all to say that these moving, shimmering works are happening live, and can change with adjustments to the LED light loop or the position of the film. Gorgeous.
My favorite installation of the fair was Melissa Spitz’s You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, curated by Ben Tollefson (room 1102). I had a nice conversation with Ben about this deeply personal artwork: the artist’s mother has struggled for years with addiction, and the Spitz began documenting it a few years ago. Interestingly, her mother supports the project, participating to the point of “directing” and collaborating with her daughter. The resulting photographs—some staged, some candid—are an intimate and complex portrait of a woman and her struggle to find herself. Especially effective is the pile of 4 x 6 photos on the table in the center of the room, for visitors to rummage through, as if dumped out of a shoe box in the closet.
If you’ve been to my website before, you might notice a few changes to the look and language of the site…well, Avant-Garde’s art advisory has refined our mission, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain in greater detail what inspired this new direction, and what it means. (Note the appraisal arm of my business remains the same!)
In 2019, I was suffering some stress in regards to my business. Some people recommended therapy or medication, and while those solutions can have their merits, I wanted something more sustainable: I sought a spiritual-wellness practice that would help bring some balance and harmony to my life. I listened to the wisdom of several spiritual leaders and thought leaders from various backgrounds and affiliations: from Buddhist monks to Christian pastors, spiritual gurus to enlightened doctors and academics. Some consistent (and perhaps self-evident) themes were that 1) we are all one. The racial, cultural, or political differences between us are an illusion; and 2) nearly everyone lauded the benefits of meditation, because it focuses our awareness in the present. We only exist in the present moment, the here and now.
It was not long after that I had an epiphany: wait a minute…art is my spiritual practice!
Experiencing art is an intuitive practice in mindfulness—it is about presence, compassion, and awakening to that greater “oneness.” When I spend a few hours at a museum or gallery-hopping in Chelsea, I enter a contemplative state akin to meditation: I am present with the art, and I am in a heightened state of awareness. I feel abundant peace and calm at the end of my art outing, and that’s because art is a physical manifestation of a higher consciousness, or awareness. Artists are like shamans: they tap into that higher awareness and put it into form, to share it with us. That is why the best art has something a little unknowable about it…a veil of otherworldliness to it.
Several spiritual leaders and scholars have lauded art as an expression of our higher spiritual selves, such as proponents of the Baha’i faith, Joseph Campbell, Josef Pieper, and Eckhart Tolle, to name just a few. And of course, countless artists have conceptualized their own creations as serving the spiritual, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic, to name a few. It is important to clarify, however, that I am not advocating for a category of “spiritual art”—that is, spiritual or divine forces do not need to be the subject of a work of art for it to be spiritually resonant (and honestly, much of what you see online that is described as “spiritual art” tends to be way too literal and just…blech). You can have a transcendental experience with an Expressionist painting, Greek sculpture, street photograph, Chinese scroll, video installation—truly, any and all good* art is ripe for a spiritual experience (*the question of what is constitutes “good art” is an age-old question and unfortunately, too complicated to get into at present…).
With so many other great thinkers before me commenting on the spirituality of art, you may be wondering, So Emily, what makes your great epiphany so special? You’re obviously not the first person to think of art in spiritual terms.
Well, there’s two reasons I think Avant-Garde’s revamped mission is timely and novel.
First, I believe that many in the art world have lost touch with the true meaning and power of art, because the industry has been corrupted by avarice and materialism. The .01 percent has put their megawatt spending power into the trendiest artists, but this has actually had detrimental implications for the rest of the art market. Prices for blue-chip artists have skyrocketed out of control; in light of the multimillion-dollar records broken every auction season, “merely affluent” buyers “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying,” the New York Times reported last year. Without these buyers, smaller galleries have been closing, or losing their best artists to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries that cater to the super-rich. It is increasingly clear that only the .01 percent of buyers, galleries, and artists are benefitting from this apparently “flourishing” art market.
All this is to say that I feel the corruptive forces of money have created a top-heavy art market that does not honor the true, transcendental purpose of art: to bring us closer to our higher selves. Avant-Garde seeks to counter the art world’s materialism by encouraging our collectors to first and foremost connect to art on a deeper, intuitive level, and support artists and galleries that resonate with them, regardless of their art-world status. And rather than conceiving of art-buying as “collecting” art—a rather possessive and egotistic notion—we encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
We encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.
The second reason I believe Avant-Garde’s mission is unique is that, quite simply, I do not know any arts professional that has ever addressed how to have a spiritual connection to a work of art. Put another way: any talk of spirituality in art tends to be an armchair intellectual exercise. In graduate school, for instance, I read artist Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 treatise On the Spiritual in Art; we discussed it in the classroom, and wrote response papers addressing its philosophical points. But my professor never encouraged us to stand before a Kandinsky and really try to internalize his message, and write about that feeling. I do not mean to discredit the academic community, or dismiss the intellectual value of art, which is important. But no amount of reading about the spirituality of art will ever approximate the direct experience of it. Or, to quote artist Marina Abramovic: “Nobody’s life is changed by somebody else’s experiences. I want more from the public. I want them to be involved and to go through changes as I do.”
The truth is that you do not need a PhD in art history to “get” a work of art. Anyone can have a spiritual experience of a work of art if they apply the principles of mindfulness: presence, awareness, and compassion. Avant-Garde works with our clients to cultivate mindful contemplation of art; we encourage collectors to begin from an intuitive experience of art, to which we add our art historical and market expertise. In service of this mission, I will also be offering contemplative art tours each month, and speaking engagements that can bring a mindful art experience to your community, conference, or even office lunch hours.
The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
The most beautiful thing is that the benefits of a mindful art interaction go far beyond the walls of your lived spaces: you’ll find yourself bringing that mindfulness into the rest of your life—heightening your awareness as you walk down the street, noticing beautiful details of the world you hadn’t noticed before. If you find yourself inspired by our message, please contact Avant-Garde to see how we can work together. Whether you’re a complete novice to art or spirituality, we’d love to cultivate your interest in both.
Peace, Love, and Art,
Emily Casden, Director
 “Toward a Pure Energy,” Germano Celant in conversation with Marina Abramovic, in Germano Celant, Marina Abramovic, Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965–2001, Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2001, p. 17.
This year’s Fall modern and contemporary auctions in New York were once again a mixed bag: there were no real headline-grabbers, and there even a handful of flops. But there were also some bright spots; several records were set, and as blue-chip artists become more and more out of reach for most collectors, more buyers are purchasing younger contemporary artists’ work at auction, especially those artists for whom there’s a waiting list on the gallery circuit.
Ahead of the sales there was cautious speculation of how global turmoil—Brexit, protests in Hong Kong, and the Trump impeachment inquiry—could impact the art market. Once again, there’s mixed data on this; while there is generally some soft market contraction, there was spirited bidding this season from Asia, including Yoshitomo Nara’s smashing new auction record of $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, despite its political upheaval. And although the fall New York auctions were more subdued than the last few years, sell-through rates were still strong, and every auction sold within its pre-sale estimate range. Ultimately, despite some soft contraction, the art industry survived 2019 with few scratches. Let’s recap some of the auction highlights, starting with the Impressionist and Modern sales, and move our way up to contemporary.
Generally, the Impressionist and Modern category slowly continues to downshift in value; Christie’s and Sotheby’s Imp & Mod evening sales this fall were down 52% and 40% respectively from the equivalent sales in May. But it is important to remember that there were some blockbuster artworks offered in May: Monet’s Mueles (1890) set a record at Sotheby’s for any Impressionist work at $110.7 million, and works from the esteemed S.I. Newhouse collection gave Christie’s Imp & Mod sale a $100 million boost.
Christie’s took in $191.9 million (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $138–203 million; this was a 31% drop from the equivalent sale last November of $279.3 million. Only sixteen of the 58 lots had in-house or third-party guarantors, which accounted for about $53.3 million of the total sale. One of the great highlights of the sale was Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. Boccioni was one of the founding members of Italian Futurism, and just as his work was maturing, he tragically died in 1916 during a training exercise in World War I, at the age of 33. With a curtailed body of work, Christie’s specialists noted that this was a difficult lot to price; it is only the second time in a century that one of Boccioni’s sculptures has been offered at auction. The auction house conservatively estimated the work at $3.8–4.5 million, but the bronze busted past its high estimate to sell for a record $16.2 million, with fees.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale outperformed Christie’s, raking in $209 million; unfortunately, this was still far below the equivalent sale from May ($349.8 million) or last November ($315.4 million). One of the gems of the evening was Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894), a large, richly-painted portrait of his friend walking along the Seine. But the painting generated less interest than Sotheby’s anticipated, selling just inside its low estimate at $19.7 million, with fees. A happier outcome occurred for Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose of 1927, depicting a solidly-built, reclining woman in a red slip. The lovely modernist painting surpassed its high estimate of $8 million, as well as the artist’s previous auction record of $9.1 million, selling for $13.4 million with fees.
Moving on to the Contemporary market: Christie’s topped the evening sales with $325.3 million, which was squarely in the middle of its $270.3–397.8 million estimates. This is a 9% downturn from the same sale in November 2018, but it is worth noting last year’s $357.6 million sale was augmented by David Hockney’s $90.3 million Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). 24 of the 54 lots offered this year had third-party guarantees. Despite promoting the “fresh to market” appeal of the works (all but three of the 54 lots had not been offered in at least ten years), 43% of lots hammered below their low estimate. But this contraction in the market was countered by a few bright spots.
The standout of the evening was Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a great, early example of Ruscha’s more conceptual approach to Pop, which achieved $52.5 million with fees. Another lovely offering was a rediscovered Hockey painting called Sur la Terrasse of 1971, which hasn’t been shown publicly since 1973. Encouraged by last year’s record Hockney sale, the Christie’s specialists estimated Sur la Terrasse to reach $25–45 million. Unfortunately, this proved to be ambitious; the painting hammered under estimate, and only reached $29.5 million with fees.
Sotheby’s Postwar & Contemporary evening sale brought in $270.5 million with an 89% sell-through rate, which was down 25% from November’s 2018 sale ($362.6 million). Artnet reports that the top bidders of the night seemed to be hailing from Asia: Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia bid on behalf of one client who spent $54.4 million, or 20% of the value of the total sale. This buyer purchased the top lot of the evening, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII(1977) for $30.1 million, as well as Clyfford Still’s PH-399(1946) for $24.3 million, well over its $18 million high estimate. But other lots did not fare as well: one high-profile work was a Francis Bacon Pope painting deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum, which sold for $6.6 million against an estimate of $6-8 million. And works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and David Hockney all passed unsold.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977)
Clyfford Still, PH-399 (1946)
The market for artists of color and women artists continue to rise, with records set and re-set for several artists this season. On the heels of a retrospective exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, Alma Thomas set a new record when her 1970 painting Fantastic Sunset sold at Christie’s for $2.7 million with fees. Also riding the success of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, Charles White set a new auction record, only to have it broken the next day: his painting Banner for Willie J (1976) sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million, followed by his work on paper Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), which sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s. Also at Sotheby’s, Norman Lewis’s Ritual (1962) sold for $2.8 million, trumping his previous record of $956,000; and Kerry James Marshall had another eight-figure sale when his painting Vignette 19 sold for $18.5 million, just a few million shy of his $21.1 million record for Past Times, sold to P. Diddy a few years ago.
As the .001% continues to push prices at the top of the market beyond the reach of collectors, more buyers are taking the risk to purchase art by emerging artists at auction, paying incredible amounts for some artists who are not quite “market tested.” Reviewing the day sales, rather than evening sales, is very eye-opening in this regard: Michael Armitage’s The Conservationists (2015), was estimated at $50,000–70,000 when offered at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale; the painting soared to $1.52 million, over twenty-one times its high estimate. Tschabalala Self’s Star, also from 2015, sold at Phillips for $350,000, nearly triple its high estimate of $120,000. Based on retail data, artnet speculates that Star probably only cost $10,000 when it was first offered in a gallery in 2015. Noah Davis, who died tragically in 2015 from cancer, had his first artwork offered at auction this year in May, selling for $47,500, well-past its $10,000–15,000 estimate. At Phillips this fall, his painting Single Mother with Father out of the Picture sold for $168,750, far outperforming its $40,000–60,000 estimate. Notably, all these young artists are also artists of color, yet again underscoring the craze for collecting artists that have, in previous generations, been marginalized.
With the presidential election on the horizon in 2020, the market will likely contract a little more, as it did during the 2016 election cycle. As has been the case the past few years, there will be some standout works that will tantalize the market, such as the likely forthcoming sale of the famous (or infamous) Macklowe Collection. In my honest opinion, it would not be the end of the world if the market contracted a little bit; to quote one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, “It’s not good when [my art] is the value of a house.” Even with a slight softening, the art market will likely continue to be quite healthy; that is, Richter’s work will always be the cost of a house. A very nice, very big house. In the Hamptons. With a helipad.
Pierre Soulages is one of the greatest artists to come out of France in the 20th Century, and the Louvre agrees with me: although the prestigious institution rarely mounts monographic shows of living artists, they are making an exception to honor Soulages with a career retrospective on the occasion of his 100th birthday (coming up December 24). The almost-centenarian has been an active member of the Parisian avant-garde since the late 1940s, working in a gestural abstract style that was trending at the time. But he is perhaps best known nowadays for his outrenoir series, a body of work that he began in the late 1970s, at the ripe age of sixty. Soulages says that the genesis of the outrenoir—which roughly translates to “beyond black”–paintings began from a foiled session in the studio, in which he kept slathering black paint on a canvas but could not arrive at a resolved composition. Frustrated, he gave up and went to bed. The next morning he saw the canvas with fresh eyes, and was struck by how sensitively the black paint responded to the light:
I saw that it was no longer black that gave meaning to the painting but the reflection of light on dark surfaces. Where it was layered the light danced, and where it was flat it lay still. A new space had come into being: the painting was no longer on the wall (as in Byzantine Art) or behind the wall (as in perspectival art) but physically in front of the canvas. The light was coming from the painting towards me, I was in the painting. 
Thereafter Soulages completely changed his artistic practice to explore the complementary relationship of darkness and light. He uses a wide range of tools to achieve various strokes and marks on the canvas, and experiments with different mattes and glosses of the pigment, all of which reflect or absorb light in different ways. As a result, this monochromatic body of work is, in fact, remarkably diverse. The artist gives the paintings direct titles that describe exactly what they are and when they were painted (for example, Peinture 227 x 306 cm, 2 mars 2009) to emphasize their objecthood; with no referents to outside imagery or objects, these artworks stand on their own and share your space and time, forcing the viewer to be present with them.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris between December 11, 2019 and March 9, 2020, be sure to check out what should be an amazing show.
In July I went to the opening of “African Spirits,” a group show of African photography from the 1950s to today, at Yossi Milo gallery. Upon entering the space, I turned to my left to start my stroll around the room’s perimeter when I met his gaze, and was immediately drawn in.
The Herculean man had neon-green hair on his head and chin, piercings in his nose and in his hulky pectorals, and a kinky leather collar. His vintage blue shorts were buttoned up to the middle of his smooth abdomen, and a diminutive fanny pack pinched his waist. His Doc Martens were decorated with black and pink furry pompoms, and, completing his fantastic ensemble, an electric pink robe, rolled at the wrists and suggestively falling off his left shoulder. Like Manet’s Olympia, he projected so many wonderful paradoxes: at once confident and vulnerable; seductive and guarded; masculine and feminine; insistent in his queerness, but untrusting of our voyeuristic presence. Perhaps somewhere under that campy pink robe was some scar tissue—wounds from years of rejection by a bourgeois society that does not understand him. Wounds which heal themselves when he can “live the fuck out loud” at the Afropunk Festival where this picture was taken.
I was mesmerized.
I proudly added the photograph to my art collection, and reached out to the French-Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo to arrange a studio visit.
Based in Brooklyn since 2008, Diallo was born in Paris to a French mother and Senegalese father. She studied at the Académie Charpentier School of Visual Art and upon graduating in 1999, started working in the music industry as a visual effects specialist, graphic designer and editor. In 2008 a friend invited her to a dinner, where she happened to sit next to the photographer Peter Beard. “It was very surprising; I was meeting someone who was 72, and I was 31, and our energy was the actually same,” she remembers. They shared the same “curiosity, and openness, and discovery—like a child.”
Beard asked to see her work—an intimidating request for any young artist, but all the more nerve-wracking because Diallo admits she had never shown her work to anyone. Beard immediately recognized her talent, and invited her to join him on his next photoshoot for Pirelli in Botswana. On location, Beard showed her everything she needed to know to be a photographer. The most important lesson? Learning to let go and let the art happen: “You set up 50, 60 precent, ensure the set or the subject is the right person. But then after you can’t just control everything, you have to let go. And the space where [I] let go…the pictures that were the best ones were the pictures where [I] let go.”
Yet there were other formative experiences on the Botswana shoot as well: Diallo objected to what she saw as the “oversexualization of the male gaze,” particularly of the black female body, which she felt in Peter’s work and in the fashion industry in general. She also said there was editorial friction between her and the Pirelli production staff, who dismissed her as one more of Peter Beard’s pretty models (he has a reputation…). As painful as the dismissal was, it motivated Diallo to take her life in a new direction: she would move to New York on an artist’s visa, and devote herself to empowering and celebrating female beauty and energy—simply put, the Divine Feminine.
“New York Spirit,” 2012, image courtesy of the artist.
“Highness,” 2011, image courtesy of the artist.
“The patriarchy is dividing us too much,” Diallo notes. We only see three or four archetypes of women represented in our society, whereas Diallo wants to “access many dimensions”: nature, humility, transcendentalism, emotionality, childish whimsy, and anger. “The woman is a real subject, because she is changing, she is transforming, she is sensitive, she is very emotional, she might be the most emotional creature on Earth. And to be able to photograph it, to be able to see her transformation…it’s not actually being shown that much in photography.”
Diallo works across a spectrum of styles, shooting street and documentary photography, portraiture, and fine artwork. When Diallo does take on commercial projects (she has worked for such publications at Time, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Essence and more), she prefers assignments that meet her mission, or at least endeavors to lend a more thoughtful interpretation of the female body.
“Yomi, The Divine Feminine,” 2018, image courtesy of the artist.
“Self-Portrait as Kali,” a collaboration with Indian body-painting artist Geeta. Image courtesy of the artist.
In her more artistic pursuits, Diallo captures the Divine Feminine in photographs of women in quiet repose; other times, she explores the Divine Feminine through the lens of religious iconography, mythology, or symbols of energy that are ancient and universal: she’ll paint her models with spirals, yin yangs or “the third eye.” Surveying the work, I thought, some of these portraits of feminine energy were quite literal. But then I asked myself: how does one capture something as elusive yet ever-present as the Divine Feminine—especially in photography? Abstraction seems an obvious choice for capturing “energy” (think the Action painters), but then how does one differentiate feminine and masculine energy on a canvas, without falling right into gendered language that reinforces sexist divisions and stereotypes? Whereas abstraction would deny the female body, Diallo and her models reify the female body as the vessel of our unique feminine energy; Female Empowerment occurs in the performance of the Divine Feminine.
In more coded imagery and language, Diallo’s collages were some of the best work I saw in her studio: richly layered works that do beg comparison to Peter Beard, although with a decidedly more feminist tone. Unlike Beard, Diallo maintains, she “treats collage in a transformative way…[my] use of ink and narrative is totally different.” Many works also address the racial legacy of African colonialism, a topic of which Americans are too ignorant, Diallo laments. But addressing racism, she says, is not her primary concern, because the Divine Feminine transcends all: “I am a woman,” she declares. “That’s the first struggle.”
Diallo and I talked for over two hours—well, I should say she talked, and I listened. She covered quite a lot in those two hours, and admittedly not always in a comprehensible way; it is not always easy to translate a visual message into a verbal one, especially for artists discussing their own work. “My brain is a collage brain,” she said at one point. It wasn’t until I was walking back to the subway from her studio that I realized what a self-actualized statement that was: Diallo had laid out snippets of her life and worldview—a shuffled deck of scraps that did not make perfect sense at first. But as we spoke, she tested, contrasted, and rearranged the pieces. By the time I left her studio, I had a clear vision of the collage: she had artfully composed a portrait of herself, quite without my noticing.
When I tell people I am an appraiser, it usually gets a Coooool!! response, followed by many questions: Like the people on Antiques Roadshow? Or How does one appraise a work of art? Or Can you take a look at this thing my grandma gave me? [Takes out cell phone to show me photos…]
And when someone engages my services, there is often a lot of explanation required to help them understand why, for instance, they can’t submit their insurance appraisal to the IRS for gift tax purposes; or how the prices they saw on 1stdibs.com are completely unrelated to what they’ll get for selling the same piece; or that, as cute as their collection of beanie babies is, Christie’s isn’t interested, so they’re better off donating it.
So, for today’s blog post, I thought I would lay out a little Appraising 101, so now when someone ask me how I do what I do, I can just send them this convenient, comprehendible and fun (emphasis on fun!) article.
*Disclaimer*: reading this article does not qualify you to go out and start appraising property. For any occasion requiring an appraisal—insurance, divorce, donations, tax liability, collateral, etc.—you are encouraged (and usually required) to engage the services of a qualified, USPAP-compliant appraiser, with membership in a vetted, professional appraisers’ association (such as myself).
First – what is an appraisal?
An appraisal is an opinion of the value of an object, based on available market data of the same or similar objects. It is important to stress that an appraisal is an opinion: an educated—and hopefully substantiated—projection or estimation of value.
So Emily, what’s this worth?
Let’s say someone comes to me and says, Hey Emily, I have this artwork by Artie McArtyface. What’s it worth?
The answer is: it depends! Because objects have multiple values. Yes, that’s right: objects have various values, which are determined by the context and circumstances of the sale. The purpose of the appraisal determines what kind of value I use.
Below are some of the more common values appraisers use, and the purposes for which they are used. Now I promise, the definitions below are as dry and boring as my article will get. Note that these are simplified definitions, and there are exceptions; the determined value is on a case by case basis.
Retail/Replacement Value: Retail Replacement Value or Replacement Value (RV), is how much it costs to replace something by buying the same/similar piece in a retail setting (i.e. gallery, dealer, etc.). This value is most typically used for insurance inventory appraisals or damage/loss claims.
Fair Market Value (FMV): A sale between a willing buyer and willing seller, neither under compulsion to buy/sell, in the most appropriate market (i.e. auction value including buyer’s premium). This value is typically used for Estate tax liability, charitable donation, gift tax, equitable distribution (e.g. divorce), and other purposes.
Marketable Cash Value (MCV): The value realized, net of expenses, by a willing seller disposing of property in the most appropriate market (i.e. the fair market value, minus fees, etc.). For example: a seller sells a painting at auction, and it hammers at $50,000. The seller must pay a 10% commission to the auction house, plus the 1.5% insurance fee, a $250 photography fee, and $200 transportation fee. So the client nets $43,800 = MCV. MCV is often used in equitable distribution (e.g. divorce settlements) or collateral asset appraisals.
Liquidation Value (LV): The price realized in a sale situation under forced or limiting conditions and/or time restraints (i.e. seized asset sales, fire sales, etc.).
Salvage Value (SV): The value of an abandoned (usually damaged) property. Commonly, this value is what an insurance company might get for selling repossessed property, so it comes into play for damage and loss claims.
Back to Artie McArtyface…
So my prospective client clarifies that he wants to donate Artie McArtyface’s work to the National Museum of Cultural Heritage, and wants to submit an appraisal to the IRS to get a tax deduction for the value of the work. Now that I know the purpose of the appraisal, I know I will use the fair market value, and must research the artist’s auction market.
The first place to start with research is with the client and the object itself: where did the client get it? Did he buy it at auction, or a gallery? Or was it inherited from his parents? Does he have a sales receipt? Any previous appraisals conducted on the piece? Was it ever exhibited in a museum exhibition? Firsthand inspection of the work is preferable, but the IRS will accept review by photographs if necessary.
Sometimes a client will dig up a sales receipt—irrefutable proof that grandma spent $100,000 on the piece! And the sales receipt looks like this:
Attention! Atención! Beachtung! The market for art and antiques, like any other market, fluctuates over time (remember my beanie babies joke?). So, sadly, the price grandma paid for something in 1952 (or 1852) has no bearing on the current value of the work. A sales receipt from 1952 is helpful to understand the authenticity and provenance of an item—that is, its history of ownership. But value-wise, generally speaking the last 5 years of sales data are most relevant to an appraiser, particularly for auction records.
What determines or impacts value?
Once I know everything I need to know about my client’s piece, I need to do my market research. This means finding recent auction values for comparable works (colloquially abbreviated to “comps”) to my client’s artwork. To use a shorthand phrase, we’re looking for works in LKQ: “Like Kind and Quality.”
What factors do I have to consider when comparing works of art? What qualities of a work of art impact or determine its value?
Well, we can start with the obvious ones:
Yes, it does matter.
Originals, Multiples & Reproductions
Is the work a completely unique work, like a handpainted oil on canvas painting? Or is it a print, in which the artist used a printing press to make 50 copies of the same image? Or is it a print or poster after an original work of art—like when a museum sells prints or posters of its most famous painting? Of course, it would be a big mistake to use a Picasso poster as a comp for a signed Picasso print!
Not all subjects are created equal. Is it a landscape? A genre scene? A portrait? A universal truth of humans is that we’re horndogs: a nude portrait of a woman will sell better than that same woman with her clothes on.
An artist’s skill and style can change dramatically over a lifetime: their early work may not be as developed as their “mature” works; or perhaps their early work is figurative, which collectors prefer to their later works, after the artist pulled an “180” into abstraction.
Let’s say Artie McArtyface died in 2010 at the age of 90, and was making art right up until his death. In his old age, his hand was not as steady, and his X series from later in life does not have the bold strength and presence of the earlier Xs. Perhaps collectors prefer the Xs from the 1960s to the Xs from the 1990s and 2000s.
Any damage, or repaired damage? What’s the quality of the repair—was it Cecilia Giménez-ed? Or conserved by a trained professional?
The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is only true to a point. Believe it or not, humankind has come to a consensus on the aesthetic appeal of certain colors and shapes, and how they’re arranged (also known as composition). How many people say their favorite color is blue? And how many people say their favorite color is poo brown? That’s what I thought.
That’s all to say that an artist will not make a museum-quality piece every time: there’s a range in the quality of the work, and the market prices will reflect the consensus on quality. The ability to analyze and compare the formal qualities of art or objects is honed over years of expertise and education—so again, make sure you’re hiring a qualified appraiser (such as myself).
The provenance, or history of ownership, of a work of art can have an impact on value. For instance, if a celebrity or person of historical importance owned something, it usually increases the value of the item.
Oftentimes there are gaps in the provenance for a work of art, as not everyone keeps sales records or receipts over decades, or even centuries. When an artwork has a solid and continuous provenance, that will give buyers more confidence that it’s authentic, and not stolen. By contrast, if a work of art has a gap in provenance from 1938–1949, for instance, that could be a red flag it was a Nazi-stolen artwork. Buyers will be less enthusiastic to spend the big bucks, in the event a rightful owner comes forward to claim it. Works that were known to be in the custody of the Nazis won’t be traded at all in the United States (at least at auction), because you can’t have clear title to something you don’t rightfully own.
Where in the World?
Unsurprisingly, items will sell best in the market where they have the largest concentration of interested collectors. So when researching comps and the appraised work, it is important to consider where the work is being sold, and at what market level (i.e. an international auction house? Regional auction house? Tag sale?).
Sometimes markets can be very niche: can you guess where California landscape painters’ work sells the best? That’s right—California! What would be a better market for selling a Picasso painting: at Christie’s New York, an internationally-recognized auction house with the marketing budget and connections to access the millionaire class that would bid on a Picasso? Or at a small regional auction house in Romania? (You’re so smart, I don’t need to tell you the answer…)
The “Bigger Picture”
Curveball: let’s say Artie McArtyface is world-renowned not for his Xs, but for his Os! What if he made Black X as a totally aberrant and wild experiment while flying high on peyote one night? It happens…
That’s all to say: you have to contextualize the artwork you’re appraising within the artist’s larger body of work. How did the artist develop and mature? What are they “known” for? Is scholarship changing on the artist? That is, are museums or curators “rediscovering” the Xs, and giving them more attention in public exhibitions or collections?
In addition to contextualizing within the artist’s career, I also take a look at the “bigger picture” of the artist’s market. Some art market databases to which I subscribe offer analytic charts and tools that allow you to examine the artist’s turnover, percentage of lots sold, average price ranges, etc. Very useful.
Comps for Black X
So I’ve researched Artie McArtyface’s auction records, and here are the most recent sales of Xs:
A Blue X from 1965 sold at Christie’s New York in May of 2016 (comp 1), just passing its pre-sale auction estimate of $30,000 – 50,000, to sell for $58,000. Both the client’s Black X and Blue X are from the same period, but formally speaking, the Blue X is more vibrant and visually appealing than the Black X.
The Checkered X (comp 2) came from the artist’s LSD-infused period of the early 1970s; although smaller in scale than Black X, the purple and yellow are satisfying contrasting colors, and create a lively visual rhythm that appeals to collectors. Thus, Checkered X outperformed its $15,000 – 20,000 estimate at Sotheby’s New York in May of 2018 to sell for $35,000.
Most recently, a Black X from later in the artist’s career was offered for auction at Sotheby’s, Paris in November 2018 (comp 3). Although the 2002 Black X exceeded its high estimate to ultimately sell for $36,000, the composition of the 2002 X is not as tight and controlled as the Xs from the 1960s and 1970s, and thus it is less appealing to collectors. Additionally, the work sold in Paris, which is not the artist’s best market; the artist’s work sells best in New York and London.
The above comps are useful, but still make it difficult to nail down a value for my client’s Black X; I’ll have to dig a little deeper. Ideally for an appraisal you want at least three comps that support your opinion of value; sometimes I’ll use four or five comps to substantiate the appraisal.
In May of 2015, Phillips auction house in New York offered a Blue X from 1967 (comp 4). The pre-sale estimate ($20,000 – 30,000) and the final selling price of $40,000 are both much lower than the Blue X that sold a year later at Christie’s ($30,000-50,000/$58,000). Did the market change that much in a year? Review of the condition report indicates that the Blue X at Phillips (comp 4) in fact had repaired breaks, thus the lower selling price. But a Blue X with condition issues may approximate the value of a Black X is good condition…
Finally, an auction result for a Black X similar to my client’s (comp 5)! Christie’s New York offered a Black X from 1966 in May 2014 with a pre-sale estimate of $20,000 – 30,000. It went on to sell for nearly double its high estimate, selling for $55,000. It is important to note the sale date of 2014: that year was an incredibly bullish year for the art market in general, and you can see the spike in the McArtyface’s sales chart above. That said, the McArtyface’s market has been on a continuous climb since 2015, and in 2018 the Museum of Modern Art put on a big retrospective exhibition of his work, which should benefit his market. And don’t be fooled by the dip between 2018 and 2019—it’s only August! With the fall sales still ahead of us in 2019, the turnover for the 2019 will probably be on par with—or better than—2017 and 2018.
Fair Market Value
Given the available market data, an appropriate fair market value for my client’s Black X by Artie McArtyface as of the date of my inspection is $50,000. And voilà, my appraisal allows my client to justify a $50,000 deduction from his taxable income for the year.
And that, my friends, is how you appraise a work of art.