Figuration won’t fade out overnight, experts agree. There is simply still too much demand on the buy side, as results from Phillips’s New Now sale in London reminded us this week.
But whether the change is led by the return of live viewing, a hunger among audiences for deeper (or at least different) discourse, or artists’ inevitable attraction to other means of communicating, nothing lasts forever… no matter how much it sometimes feels like it.
The Week in Gavels
Hunter Biden’s Art Ethics Oddity
Hunter Biden (duh). (Kris Connor/WireImage)
The only thing in the art market less avoidable than figuration this week was news of the ethics agreement finalized between the White House and Georges Bergès Gallery, the dealership managing Hunter Biden’s blossoming art career.
But while the conversation so far has fixated on how the pact could harm the Biden administration politically, it also raises questions about artist’s rights that every studio should consider.
Here are the two key dynamics relayed by the Washington Post‘s Matt Viser, who spoke to two officials familiar with the agreement.
__________________________________________________________________________________1. “Purchases of Hunter Biden’s artwork… will be kept confidential from even the artist himself,” and the gallery “will withhold all records” from him, “including potential bidders and final buyers.”
What Hunter doesn’t know about his collectors can’t hurt his family. No one can buy influence through the artwork if the Bidens stay blind, deaf, and dumb to who is doing the buying—and for how much.
Setting aside the bizarre verbiage (“potential bidders” in a gallery-sector context?)…
- By law, Bergès cannot withhold all records of sales, because every artist must know when their works have been sold by their dealer, and at what price, to ensure accurate compensation and tax reporting.
So the gallery must only be blockading the identities of buyers and of parties who make sales inquiries (the latter being those “potential bidders”). But even if so…
- Hunter could lose his works’ provenance forever, as when a living artist’s work is sold at auction (where neither the house nor buyer is required to disclose the latter’s identity).
- The void hurts young artists down the line if they need to locate pieces for important later-career CV milestones such as museum exhibitions or a catalogue raisonné.
2. Bergès has “agreed to reject any offer that he deems suspicious or that comes in over the asking price.”
The gallery will short-circuit any attempts at impropriety by sticking to a clear price list, from $75,000 for works on paper to $500,000 for large paintings.
Forget coming in over the asking price. By traditional industry standards, those prices are so high for a first show that market players and ethics watchdogs alike have suggested it would be “suspicious” for buyers just to meet them as listed. However…
- I think this concern is exaggerated, because artists with no pedigree in the art establishment now regularly sell for prices in this range based purely on pop cultural awareness.
- Just look at the gonzo results for Edward Snowden, Paris Hilton, and a slew of crypto-native talents in the NFT market.
Instead, my worry is the gallery-sector standard that an artist’s prices must rise at every subsequent show of new works. Even if Hunter can secure half a million dollars for a large painting this fall, will he be able to get, say, $700,000 in 2024 or $1 million in 2028, especially when his father is just another ex-president?
Maybe so… but lofty initial prices create major pressure that most rising talent fails to overcome.
The Bottom Line
Much of the pandemonium around Hunter’s ethics agreement hinges on the assumption that the art market is uniquely susceptible to grifters and dark dealings. As you know all too well, dear Pro reader, artwork has no fundamentals and thus no quantitative basis for its pricing, and the industry built around it is notoriously arcane to outsiders.
Yet any good or service is ultimately worth whatever a buyer will pay for it. Even fundamentals are only ever a guide—and one that is often disregarded. This means every business can be gamed by bad actors seeking financial gain or presidential influence, from finance and tech, to food and beverage, to (ahem) real estate and apparel.
What the art world should focus on in Hunter Biden’s ethics agreement is the way it disadvantages an aspiring artist within an industry that is unforgiving at even the best of times. No matter what happens with his career, we can learn from its strange beginning.
Christie’s Private Sales Explosion
© Midnight Publishing Group News.
Amid the selection of first half results Christie’s reported this week, one of the standouts was the continued, propulsive growth of private transactions. The house raked in more than $850 million in private sales in the opening six months of the year—a 41 percent increase on the equivalent period in 2020, and an almost 240 percent gain compared to the first half of 2019.
The chart above reverse-engineers the gains into U.S. dollars. (Christie’s declined to confirm my calculations, but I got straight A’s in algebra so I think we’re good.)
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that H1 private sales at the house last year walloped their predecessors in 2019. After all, public selling events across the auction sector had to be put on ice from mid-March through June of 2020 due to, you know, that whole epochal plague situation.
The real news is that between January 1 and June 30 of this year, Christie’s stacked roughly another $243 million in private deals on top of the $607+ million worth it generated during the six months when private sales were the only game in town.That’s an impressive feat regardless of the circumstances.
Click through below for Eileen Kinsella’s full rundown of the earnings call.
“As an art dealer, I was never aware of the diversity. There are collectors in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tokyo. It’s coming from so many places that it’s hard to make a comparison to New York in the ‘80s or whatever. It’s its own thing, and maybe it’s a new paradigm that is going to drive the global market. But again, what do I know?”
—Joel Mesler on what he’s learned about the Asian collecting circuit since becoming a full-time artist, during an expansive interview with Henri Neuendorf.
Is Noah Horowitz Going for the Gavel? + Three More Market Morsels
Rumors are that the next gig for outgoing Art Basel director of the Americas Noah Horowitz will be at an auction house, according to Melanie Gerlis. (Financial Times)
- Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips declined to comment; Horowitz stayed respectfully mum.
Lehmann Maupin signed an exclusive partnership allowing it to accept 40+ cryptocurrencies via Gemini, the crypto exchange founded by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. (Midnight Publishing Group News Pro)
When Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, or Vanessa Beecroft wants a sculpture honed from Carrara marble, they now call an Italian robot. (The New York Times)
Here’s why Friedrich Petzel, whose expansion simply swaps one Chelsea space for a larger, more versatile one, “[doesn’t] need to have a global empire.” (ARTnews)