How to collect?
In March, Sotheby’s saw the sale of the Bear Witness collection for £36 million exceeding all sale expectations. This was the first sale Sotheby’s has held that required every single department, with the exception of wine, to take part. It was the product of passion; the unifying themes between the many and disparate pieces were bears and skulls. While the bulk of the value was in the paintings by artists such as Warhol, Rothko and Tracy Emin, the extraordinary results throughout the collection show what can be achieved if you aim for something that truly reflects your interests. The collection was started in 1976 and on paper shouldn’t really have worked. Yet, driven by a rigorous aesthetic and disregard for convention it became something of true value. Is this a sign that the so-often-demeaned old-fashioned style of collecting ought to be reconsidered?
For many years, as prices in Post-War and Contemporary art escalate at a sometimes shocking rate, collectors have gone deeper and narrower into a certain period. This collection, however, while entirely contemporary in its look, has something rather venerable and traditional about its eclecticism. Its success suggests that there is little reward in being confined by market categories. Of course, to achieve a collection at this level requires a degree of dedication. Perhaps this auction shows what Seymours have long advocated: that diversity within a collection can prove to be its strength. To put together a collection that inspires and makes everyone take notice, you need to consider it as a whole and the relationships between each work, irrespective of category or genre, is integral to its success. Diversity can, in the end, be a collection’s defining characteristic as well as the stepping-stone to creating something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Market Report: Sculpture opportunities
Sculpture sometimes seems to be a second thought for collectors. At TEFAF this year, however, two sculptures were displayed that told a fascinating story. Not too far from each other were exceptional examples of work by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). In one sense this combination of displays told the story of 19th century French sculpture: the master and the pupil: Carpeaux was an inspiration to Rodin, who constantly referred to Carpeaux’ work in his own: the form of Carpeaux’ Ugolino and his sons is echoed in Rodin’s The Thinker. The works at TEFAF were of equal importance within the context of each sculptor’s work yet the cost of the pieces differed widely; Carpeaux was on sale for €30,000 whereas the Rodin was $6,000,000. The market clearly reflecting the difference between the artists’ market statures. This is not to say that the Carpeaux should be overlooked. On its own terms it is a wonderful work and shows that sculpture is alive with variation and possibility.
Sculptures are, in some ways, harder to collect. They can be placed in a room without the instant gratification of filling blank wall space. As modern techniques have developed, size is no longer an obstacle in the manufacturing of pieces so contemporary artists appear to reserve sculpture as the place to make their most outlandish statements. Few people have the space for these “grands projets”.
Yet the relationship between painters and sculptors couldn’t be more important. These works at TEFAF look both back to classical times and forward to the Abstract Expressionists of America. Artists such as Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) frequently refer to the influence of sculptors such as Rodin and Carpeaux. It is time to stop thinking of sculpture as the awkward sibling to painting and look again. You might find an opportunity that surprises you.
As May approaches, people’s attention is already turning to The Venice Beinale. There are certain things about the oldest Beinale in Europe that are hard to resist: sipping cocktails on the lido in the sunshine is just one of them. With the ever-increasing number of art fairs, Venice needs to work hard to justify its place in the art diary. There are always one or two surprises at Venice so there will be a reason to go. This year they have tried to generate interest by appointing their first African curator. Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor is the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and he is every inch the professional curator, having organised “boundary defying” multi-disciplinary shows around the world. He was even the artistic director of Documenta 11 (1998-2002) which is possibly why his announcement is ultimately less radical than it might at first appear. For the British, the sense of déjà vu is repeated by the presence of Sarah Lucas in the Pavilion. It is not that she isn’t one of the wittiest, most-intelligent, finest artists at work today, it just feels a little bit retro.
The two most venerable art fairs in Europe, Venice and Cologne, are coming under greater pressure from a global market and they put on a good face. Cologne, in particular, is putting on a great show of appearing more energised. In reality it had one or two standout exhibitions, Ida Applebroog at Hauser and Wirth and the brave choice of Basil Beattie to fill Hales Gallery’s stand, in particular. Otherwise, it looked a lot like all the fairs across the world. The art fair, like the art market, is an increasingly crowded arena and seeking out the jewels, like collecting, takes stamina, knowledge and time. Though, failing that, if you do go to Venice you can always play a round of mini-golf on Doug Fishbone’s latest sculpture, Leisureland Golf.
Re-evaluating Aboriginal Art
As the British Museum opens its survey of indigenous Australian art it is worth looking at Australia with a little more care. In the 1990s a wave of interest fell upon Aboriginal art that saw rapid and unsustainable growth, which subsequently receded in 2007. One of the challenges for this genre is that the Aboriginal art market is a two tier market: the tourist tat and the work that merits serious attention.
While this 40,000 year-old culture was not shy of pictorial depiction, the creation of paintings, laying imagery and iconography on to canvas, is a relatively recent development. A collaboration in the 1960s between the elders, or old fellas, the children and Australian school teacher Geoffrey Barden in the newly formed township of Papunya Tula, saw the school house emblazoned with a stunning mural depicting the Honey Ant Dreaming, that caused Robert Hughes to declare Aboriginal art to be “the last great art movement of the 20th Century”. In their wisdom, the South Australian government white-washed over during the 1970s.
The best way of fathoming what the “Dreaming” represents to the Aborigines is that it is simultaneously the past, present and future in an ethereal plain. Aboriginal Art is centred around their idea of “country”. The iconography provides a map to allow the initiated to know where waterholes existed; meeting places for ceremony; and, often in the female artists’ work, the harvesting of food. Work from the Western Desert is identified by “dot-work”. Many of the female painters, such as Wentja Napaltjarri and Kathleen Petyarre are extraordinarily skilled in developing large artworks with an incredible sense of movement through the build-up of intricate and tiny “dots”, a technique that was possibly developed to hide the Dreaming from the uninitiated. Their paintings became a repository and physical expression of their beliefs and offer an extraordinary insight into this ancient culture.
It is a society that had no exposure or awareness of Art History. It is against this background that artists such as Rover Thomas, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and Tommy Watson were painting, giving life to their Dreamings and presenting a unique version of their culture to the world while defining an aesthetic for themselves. Rover Thomas’s painting takes a topographical view of a vast expanse of “country” spanning many hundreds of square kilometres defined by the ochre of the desert; viewing a Tommy Watson work, however, you are struck by an extraordinary use of colour and the depiction of his “country” is akin to being a few feet up while whizzing across the country at high speed.
To think of this genre as a parochial culture and market would be quite wrong. Many of the leading figures of Aboriginal art are the leading figures of Australian art. Artists such as Nyurupayia Nampintjinpa (AKA Mrs Bennet), Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, Naata Nungurri, Willy Tjapaltjarri, Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri have not only seen their work collected by institutional collections in Australia but across Europe and the USA. It is, however, a difficult market to navigate.
There is very little career management for the artists. Their work will apparently be available through “dealers” (who include the plethora of taxi drivers at Alice Springs airport) through to highly respected gallerists in the major cities. Authentication of work is essential, as often the “family” will assist in creating work for the tourist trade. The best work, however, is worthy of serious consideration, routed in prehistoric ritual and history yet presented in a remarkably contemporary aesthetic. It is also a finite collecting area: many of the great Aboriginal painters have now passed away and there are few of the next generation that have actively or willingly look to continue 40,000 years of culture in becoming the custodians of their Dreamings. It is unlikely that the world will ever again see the colonisation of an ancient nomadic culture and within a lifetime see that experience laid on to canvas. If you are interested, we have an Aboriginal art specialist at Seymours so do contact us for more information.
New Leader, New Direction?
Returning to Sotheby’s, they have a new CEO. After one of the longest interregnums in the auction business William Ruprecht, who had been CEO from 2000 to 2014, was replaced by Tad Smith. When Smith’s name was announced it was initially greeted by many people saying, “Who?” For understandable reasons, those in the art business were not particularly well acquainted with a man whose experience had been in magazines and running Madison Square Garden, the arena in New York. The question now is, what does this mean for the market as a whole?
Smith’s CV bears a striking resemblance to the recently ousted CEO of Christie’s Steven Murphy. They are both American auction outsiders, they both worked in publishing and content and they were both experts in tailoring their content to niche audiences. Smith’s great achievement while he ran Cablevision Media sales was to devise a way of targeting the adverts for his cable clients. Murphy’s leadership of Roedale publishing was founded on creating niche publications for a specific market sector while that sector was “hot”. In a market that is growing increasingly competitive, especially at the top end, Sotheby’s clearly considers the areas it most needs to re-focus are its marketing operations. With Domenico de Sole, formerly of Gucci, working alongside Smith as their chairman, they see their future as building a global luxury brand.
In some ways this makes sense. If you are growing a business you need to make sure that all the weapons in your armoury are ready to fire. What is curious about the auction business, however, is that no matter how many times you look for a scaleable marketing opportunity, the idiosyncratic power of an individual work of art can knock it for six.