What makes an art market?
Yesterday, Sothebys offered a number of works by the Irish artist Louis le Brocquy. Among them were W. B. Yeats which sold for £74,500 and Fantail pigeons which sold for £98,500. What is interesting about this is that around 2006 at the height of the Celtic Tiger these works sold for considerably more. W. B. Yeats made €360,000 and the pigeons went for €330,000 including commission. These were Irish works being bought in Ireland for large amounts because of the strength of the domestic market. The fact that they are coming up for auction suggests a newfound faith in that same market and the reinvigoration of the Celtic tiger, even if it is nowhere near its 2007 height. But it also points to something else: during this time of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) economies there is more to establishing a national art movement than mere economic success.
Brazil is a case in point. Brazilian artists have been on the tip of many advisors tongues as the next big thing. There have certainly been one or two notable successes such as Beatriz Milhazes, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. The San Paulo art fair becomes ever-trendier though the transactions are tricky. The domestic tax structure imposes such large levels of taxation on importing art that the art market struggles to gain traction in this environment impacting on the establishment of a global movement for Brazilian art.
China seems to have been the good-time, boom story regardless of what has been happening globally. They have developed an entirely different art market infrastructure, where artists act as their own gallerists with the most successful artists, such as Zeng Fanzhi, establishing huge studios that double as gallery spaces. The result of this is an artist driven market but one that is always aware of Communist concerns surrounding displays of wealth which masks transparency and can compromise transactions.
As the Celtic Tiger showed, economic dream times have a disappointing habit of fading away but the cause both for the growth and decline are often a vast array of factors, the majority of which have to do with domestic policy rather than the art itself.
What to see: Rembrandt The Late Works
The National Gallery has received almost unanimous praise for Rembrandt: The Late Works, showing around 60 pieces painted in the last twenty years of his life after 1650. The critical pitch is entirely deserved. Assembling the works from around the world, with a particular emphasis on the collection of the Rijksmuseum is no mean feat. There have, however, been murmurings that the crowd, even limited to 180 people within any time slot, can overwhelm the paintings. The National Gallery have responded to this by offering select time periods when you can go in more select company with the guide of a curator. There is a premium for this but at £45 it is far from astronomical. What’s interesting is that it shows the value of connoisseurship in another guise. It is, unsurprisingly, a more valuable experience to find out about the paintings not from the spectator’s point of view but the curator’s as well.
Reappraising the artist: Banksy
The idea of reclaiming street art for the art establishment isn’t new. Basquiat, Warhol’s protégé, started as a street artist, his work feeding on the energy of his outsider status. He is now one of the key figures of the New York auction scene, a barometer of the state of the market. Dubuffet was intent on kicking against the establishment through his work and that same work that is now exhibited by and sold to the collectors who could be thought of as defining the very same establishment. The figure who has recently done the most to bring street art to the inside is Banksy. His work is doubly surprising. Not only does it deploy the vernacular of street art but, at a time when the market is driven by personalities – Warhol, Hirst, Bacon – he remains entirely invisible. This tempted people to suggest he was a stunt and a flash in the pan but actually his work remains remarkably resilient.
It might be true that his prices at auction don’t reach the zenith that they did in 2007/2008 but the private market continues to be buoyant. Exhibitions such as ‘The Unauthorised Retrospective’ held at Sotheby’s gallery S2 curated by Steve Lazarides, fuel demand and highlight the most important element in collecting works by Banksy: the evolution of a connoisseurship around his work. His Crude Oils have travelled particularly well and represent an opportunity to view his work in a different light from that of the street, while also acknowledging his art-historical position. Far from being the underground artist who momentarily made it big in a flash of publicity, Banksy, is showing himself to be an artist around whom sophisticated collections continue to be built, even if he does keep his face out of the limelight.
Market Focus: What happened to the day sale?
In the weeks that spawned evening auctions of such magnitude in New York that they can either make you leap for joy or turn for sorrow, it’s interesting to reflect on their cousin, the day sale. It used to be that the day sale was a great place to pick up lower value pictures, worth the estimate that were bought on the basis of a love affair. They were the forum where you could buy something because you responded to it immediately. This is increasingly harder to do, so what are the factors that have changed and what’s the point of the day sale?
It is very clear that the evening auctions are offering increasingly valuable lots. It is unusual to find anything under seven figures in a New York evening sale. The day sale has had to take up the slack and offer what used to be offered in the evening sales, the good quality pictures that sell for a healthy six figures. There is no problem with doing this. Sotheby’s sold 78% of their lots in the day sale. The top lot was an Andy Warhol portrait of Debbie Harry that sold for $3,077,000. When this is the sort of price you can get for your second tier offerings there isn’t an incentive for the auction houses to take lower value works. This has accelerated the market trends of late modernism hogging the limelight with Pop and minimalism along with big brand names. It is causing a flight to safe bets because the money is so big and the houses need to ensure the returns on their sale. This is hampering subjective response to particular works in a certain moment. The result is that the market distorts what is at stake in buying art. It shouldn’t be that the zeros at the end of a price validate a work. Day sales are no longer the place to go to find either a bargain or a painting you just happen to love. The collector is having to work a little bit harder and look outside the main auction rooms to find the gems at the right price point for his or her collection. A work that is bought for £2,000 can be worth every penny of that price. It’s just that at the moment the bigger numbers are shouting louder. Whether they shout for longer is the question that remains.
The British and Irish art sales are gently increasing in value and as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud continue to be darlings of the Post-war art scene it’s not a surprise. They do throw up some curiosities such as the fact that two Anthony Caro sculptures in the Christie’s sale with the same estimate of £30,000–50,000 performed somewhat differently. Silver Piece 19 (mirror view) sold for £76,900 while Pine Squat went for £47,500. As ever, approachability was key. Silver Piece at 44.5 cm high could easily find a home, whereas Pine Squat at 109.2 cm wide was harder to place and less accessible. But the real surprise came from the Scottish Colourists.
The Colourists have been a steady market in recent years; however, what occurred at Christie’s went beyond expectations. A brother and sister put up Fergusson’s Poise for auction with an estimate of £80,000–100,000. The work was entirely fresh to market having been discovered in their grandparents’ attic in France. Their grandparents as well as being friends with Monet were the first owners of the work. At auction it fetched a record-breaking £638,500. Yet again, freshness to market, quality of work and attractive estimates combine to form a winning combination.