What's the price of creativity?
Artists have frequently used money as the material of their art; auction houses have frequently used that art to make more money. Andy Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills sold for $43.7 million in 2009. In this case, however, the work was a silk-screen of money rather than the money itself. Last Thursday, Christie’s went one better. They offered a work by the artist Darren Bader that consisted solely of the money he could crowdsource for the work of art using website Indiegogo. But when the money is the art where does this leave the buyer?
In the video that Bader prepared to entice people to donate money to his work of art he is clear to state that this is “not a scam, it’s not a trick,” and it seems fair enough to take this on face value. After all, the only beneficiary of this work of art was a charity. The winning bidder was able to choose which charity, selected from a pre-determined list, received the crowdsourced money while also getting a certificate for the work. While there might be a flutter of disappointment that the amount raised fell short of the artist’s hopes (he aimed to raise £310,786, an amount apparently chosen at random) it managed to sell for more money than it was “worth”. Bader raised £10,211 and the piece sold for £12,500.
Yet this piece, almost entirely without substance, runs the risk of exemplifying the spirit of Emperor’s New Clothes that can stick to contemporary art. It is very hard to quantify what this is worth outside the moment of bidding and, while that might appear to be a comment by Bader on the market, the circularity of the argument can make the art disappear altogether. Navigating this uneasy relationship between art and money is more important but also harder than ever.
It might also be seen as a triumph of marketing by Christie’s. This is, after all, the same season where in another of their Post-War and Contemporary sales they offered a lot selected by popular vote from the website ArtStack. Christie’s has abnegated their role as curator of the sale and handed it over to the public. For one lot, Christie’s put together a User-Generated Auction in the hope of getting column inches to relaunch their more accessible First Open sale. It seems as though the most creative element in the auction business might be in the marketing room and, if that is the case, where do you find the substantial creativity that used to be found in art?
Market Focus: The Old Master Auctions
Perhaps one answer to where you find substantial works art arose in New York at the end of January. The Old Master auctions at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s were a disappointment, with Christie’s relying on one painting by Bronzino for half the total value of their sale. This is not a sign of the auction houses serving this category well. What it does mean, however, is that with a good eye and the right knowledge it is possible to find works of art that are of exceptional quality at a good price. These works might lack the big brand names of trophy artists such as Michelangelo, Picasso and Matisse but they display the quality that can often be the bedrock of a great collection put together for personal reward.
The reattribution of works that have recently hit the headlines suggests a market that is increasingly uncomfortable with works that are not by the “greats”. The study of Salisbury Cathedral that Sotheby’s sold as a work by Constable for £3 million, despite the fact that Christie’s sold it in 2013 for £3,500, puts an astonishing pressure on the name of the artist to generate value. The prospect of a big name can cause normally diligent professionals to disregard any caution that they normally bring to bear on less arty expenditures.
The same attitude is apparent in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The curators there have reattributed two bronzes to Michelangelo. The internet is now exploding with culture-vultures planning their trip to East Anglia to see these works by a master. Had they chosen to go earlier they could have seen any number of exceptional paintings by Cézanne, Monet or Titian without the bronze-generated crowds. That said, even without the flag of a big name attribution, these works still made £1.65 million at auction in 2002 showing that their merit was apparent to the connoisseur at the time.
Clearly, it pays not to follow the big name but to seek out the quality of the work.
What to See: Marlene Dumas and a note on TEFAF, Maastricht
Marlene Dumas was, in 2008, the painter of the highest value work of art by a woman. She is South African and, possibly, not as well known in England as she should be. Tate Modern are currently showing a major retrospective, Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. It is a typically artspeak title for an extraordinary collection of paintings that show an artist revisiting the motif of the head again and again to very different results. It is the product of a serious, attentive aesthetic that is unusual in contemporary art and the number of works of such consistent quality reward the viewer at a level unusual in the works of some living artists. It is a fine act of connoisseurial curating to have been able to assemble such an exhibition.
Speaking of connoisseurship, the Managing Director of TEFAF, Paul Hustinx, who has done so much to build on of the most successful art fairs in the world, is to step down this year. This will be his final fair. He will be succeeded by ex-Sotheby’s Patrick van Maris. Will we see a change in the quality or tone of the fair? We will, as ever, be in Maastricht for the fair this year and we’ll be delighted to see you there.
Reappraising the artist: Peter Lanyon
Peter Lanyon falls into that uneasy category of British Modernists. Born in Cornwall in 1918, his work is thick with the influence of St Ives as he negotiated an independent Modern style for his work. To frame his career like this, however, is to run this risk of making both him and his work appear parochial. During his lifetime he exhibited in New York and encountered Rothko, Motherwell and other Abstract Expressionists whose work thrilled him. His work was a major presence at Basle Art Fair last year and his popularity in America is on the increase.
He performs steadily at auction with his late work Sea Going achieving £229,875 against an estimate of £150,000–250,000 at Christie’s in 2013. Works on the private market fetch up to £500,000. This year sees the publication of Lanyon Catalogue Raisonné and an exhibition at the end of the year at the Courtauld: Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings (opens 15 October). This exhibition should, according to the Courtauld, show how he “sought to create a new vision of landscape painting for the modern era that could express both sensory experience and a profound understanding of our fragile existence within the world.” These factors could make it the year that Lanyon follows in the footsteps of those other great Modern British Artists, Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, who have made it to an international field rather than merely a British one.
Sotheby’s Impressionist sale in London was the most successful auction in London ever realising £186.44 million. It achieved this not through any particular fireworks or special outrider but by putting together an exceptional group of works, especially the group of works by Monet, valuing them fairly and selling them pretty much mid-estimate every time. In some sense, the surprise was that there was no surprise. There is, however, one lot which deserves special attention: Seurat’s Une baignade, Asnières.
This work on paper made £7.8 million against an estimate of £5,000,000–7,000,000. Seurat is not usually an artist automatically associated with the blue-chip, safe-bets, of the art world. He is much less well-known than certain behemoths and yet this drawing is now the record-breaking work of art on paper. It was in perfect condition, the image is very commercial and easily recognisable from the National Gallery’s Bathers at Asnières, as well as being an eye-grabbing image in its own right. The quality of work appears to have been allowed to speak for itself and trump more obvious market forces in this record-breaking auction.