The Back Room: Waiting on the Future

Despite the many tragedies COVID-19 caused last year, the silver lining to the once-in-a-century upheaval was supposed to be that it would spark a radical rethinking of life, politics, culture, and business. But to paraphrase funk legend Rick James in the Chappelle’s Show sketch that defined an era of comedy for old millennials, inertia has turned out to be a hell of a drug in the art market.

With our third year under the shadow of COVID just a few months away, I argued in this week’s Gray Market that it’s time to stop pretending the industry has responded to the epic challenge of the pandemic with sufficient creativity and vision for the long term.

Even the best-resourced players seem most interested in re-establishing the status quo with bare-minimum tweaks.

  • Major auction houses have fixated on improving their live-streaming capabilities and “disrupting the traditional calendar” by holding the maximum number of sales that consignments will allow.
  • Dealers and art fairs have concentrated on online viewing rooms that lightly refine the same grid-based, click-to-buy template used in every other form of e-commerce.
  • NFTs are largely being treated by art sellers as just another item to flog in more or less the same ways as every other work in their respective holdings.

I had to ask: Is this really the best we can do?

It shouldn’t be. As I learned from futurist Doug Stephens’s latest bookResurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World, a vanguard of forward-thinking brands is putting art-market innovation to shame with their big moves toward transformational change.

His case studies reveal a grand irony: Art sellers have largely been pirouetting away from showmanship and engagement toward mechanized, repeatable, low-friction transactions at exactly the moment future-conscious retailers are doing the exact opposite.

For example, consider…

CAMP, a toy store where toys take up only about 20 percent of the space in each brick-and-mortar location.

  • The rest houses a “black-box theater of experience for kids and their families,” hosting rotating productions built inside out from currently featured toys by a team of Broadway veterans.
  • Camp sells tickets to all performances and sponsorships for each production, turning the toys into buyable souvenirs of an unforgettable day.
  • The ethos echoes what could (and sometimes does) drive great for-profit gallery exhibitions, fair booths, and (to some degree) museum shows, like the beloved John Baldessari-designed “Magritte and Contemporary Art” at LACMA.

B & H PHOTO VIDEO, meanwhile, is an A/V superstore whose sales staff consists entirely of expert photographers uniquely fit to guide buyers through costly, often-confusing specialty purchases.

  • The business thrives by offering elite customer service—something even more lacking in online viewing rooms than in physical galleries, many collectors say.

MORPHE, a next-wave cosmetics venture, has re-engineered each of its stores to double as an accessible content-production house for customers.

  • Studio time, equipment, and onsite specialists can all be booked for users’ shoots.
  • This creates (and monetizes) a reciprocal relationship between the brand and buyers who were already crafting DIY social media content in its spaces anyway. (Sound familiar?)

The Best and Worst of the Art World This Week

Machu Picchu’s Real Age Uncovered – Thanks to new radiocarbon dating, the cultural heritage site is revealed to be even older than scientists previously thought.

Phillips Fills Its Coffers – The auction house reported earning more than half a billion dollars in the first half of 2021, a 25 percent increase from 2019.

To Infinity and Beyond – The biggest-ever museum devoted to astronomy has opened in Shanghai, with an observatory, planetarium, and solar telescope.

Mega Michelangelo – The latest immersive art experience to take over the country is none other than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which will touch down in cities around the U.S.

Musicians Get Artsy – Grimes, Bon Iver, and other musicians are creating art installations to draw attention to climate change.

Art on the Page – Looking for a new beach read? We’ve rounded up 17 art-centric books to delve into this summer.

Return to Sender – More than 17,000 ancient artifacts looted from Iraq are being returned after they were recovered in the U.S., Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Art World Honchos Invest in NFTs – A new platform called MakersPlace has attracted investors including former Sotheby’s C.E.O. Bill Ruprecht.

More Museum Workers Move to Unionize – Workers at the Art Institute of Chicago are trying to unionize in an attempt to combat low wages and excessive hours.

Court Rules Against Stonehenge Tunnel – A judge in the U.K. has thwarted plans for a highway tunnel near Stonehenge—a big win for cultural preservationists.


Guards Under Pressure – Museum guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are reporting dire conditions, saying they are being asked to work too much, and the art is suffering as a result too.

Museum Director Resigns Over Mandates – An Italian museum director has left his post due to new vaccination mandates, claiming that no cultural institution should bar visitors.

Extreme Weather Threatens Cultural Sites – Wildfires raging throughout Europe are sparking fear as historic cultural sites in Greece appear to be in the line of destruction.

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The Back Room: Go Figure

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy. 

This week in the Back Room: The flagging(?) market for figurative art, Hunter Biden as artist’s rights case study, Christie’s private-sales surge, and much more—all in an 8-minute read (2,133 words).


Top of the Market

Figuration Fatigue?

Emily Mae Smith, Revenge of the Flowers (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin Gallery.

Emily Mae Smith, Revenge of the Flowers (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, Perrotin Gallery, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, and Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin.

During the mid-2010s dominance of Zombie Formalism, more than a few art-world citizens would have descended into the underworld like mythical heroes for the chance to bring back figurative painting.

But the two genres have fully swapped positions in the years since—and now some market players are asking whether the industry has nearly burnt itself out on figuration, writes Katya Kazakina.

All sectors of the industry were already saturated with imagery of the body before the pandemic, yet the genre’s presence has only become harder to escape since March 2020. Human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary artworks sold at auction in the first half of 2021, according to Midnight Publishing Group Analytics, as Asian collectors chased works by artists like Amoako BoafoEmily Mae Smith, Dana Schutz, and Amy Sherald.


What Caused the Figurative Flare-up?

  • Museums and private collectors’ rush to fill gaps in their holdings of works by women artists and artists of color (especially Black artists).
  • Portraiture’s tendency to depict the overlooked identity groups said artists belong to (“proving” to viewers that the owners are rebalancing the scales).
  • The art audience’s longing for human connection during a year (or more) of isolation.
  • Figuration’s perfect fit with the visual strengths of Instagram.

But now there are signs that at least two non-figurative genres are on the rise as in-person exhibition-hopping returns—and major galleries in Chelsea are championing both via works by artists of color.


Installation Work 

Major must-see-IRL installations can currently be found at…

  • Lisson, where Hugh Hayden has created three chapel-like spaces filled with meticulously sculpted, sawed, and woven object (see: reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, school desks).
  • Gagosian, where the Antwaun Sargent-curated “Social Works” focuses on community engagement in Black art practices via monumental sculptures (see: 5,000 records by 1980s House music legend Frankie Knuckles, assembled by Theaster Gates), video installations, and even a functional farm.



While pure abstraction still mostly remains out of fashion, landscape could be a natural bridge between it and the figurative works the market has been flocking to, as can be seen in…

  • Marianne Boesky’s group show “A Thought Sublime”
  • Lisa Schiff’s group show “Ridiculous Sublime” (in Tribeca, but still!)
  • Matthew Marks’s solo show of 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, whose works fusing portraiture and allegorical scenery sold out at prices from $30,000 to $50,000.
  • Cheim and Read’s solo show of Matthew Wong’s ink drawings depicting lone figures in mystical environments. (“Several” sold, at prices from $275,000 to $450,000.)


The Bottom Line

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.


[Read More]


The Week in Gavels

Hunter Biden’s Art Ethics Oddity

Hunter Biden. (Kris Connor/WireImage)

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.”

The Idea: 

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.

The Problems: 

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 Idea: 

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.

The Problems: 

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 SnowdenParis 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.


[Read More]


Data Dip

Christie’s Private Sales Explosion

© Artnet News.

© 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.


[Read More]


“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.


Express Checkout

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 KoonsMaurizio 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)


Paint Drippings

Here’s what else made a mark in the latest Wet Paint (and elsewhere).

Art Fairs

  • This fall’s FIAC (October 21–24) will once again be an in-person affair, with 160+ galleries showing at the Grand Palais Ephémère and another 50 exhibitors strictly online.

Auction Houses

  • Christopher Wool’s If You (1992), bought by Larry Gagosian (with a phone pressed to his ear) for $23.7 million in 2014, recently appeared on the wall of Steve Cohen’s East Hampton home in an Instagram post by his daughter Sophia.
  • YiXiao Ding, the Shanghai-based collector who recently spent $1.4 million on an Emily Mae Smith canvas at Phillips, snapped up Salman Toor’s Visitation (2016) at Christie’s this month.
  • American collector Thomas Kaplan consigned the Leonardo study of a bear’s head sold for £8.8 million with fees at Christie’s Exceptional Sale last week, per The Art Newspaper.


  • Anton Kern now reps multidisciplinary artist Yuli Yamagata alongside Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel (São Paulo) and Galeria Madragoa (Lisbon); her first solo show with Kern will debut in September, simultaneous with a presentation in Art Basel’s Parcours section.
  • Eva Presenhuber expanded its roster by adding painter Amy Feldman, whose gray-on-gray abstractions resonate with this writer for obvious reasons.
  • Almine Rech announced it represents painter Scott Kahn.
  • Pace named Jessie Washburne-Harris, a former executive director of Marian Goodman, vice president of its NY headquarters.
  • Postmasters is looking to hire a new associate director as Manan Ter-GrIgoryan moves into a role as strategic advisor at large.


  • A coalition of nearly 50 art industry pros signed a petition condemning Francesco Bonami, director of Hangzhou’s By Art Matters museum, for responding to his inclusion in an Art Newspaper piece on white Western males winning top positions at Chinese institutions by Instagramming that he sometimes feels like “a 35-year-old Iranian lesbian.”
  • Ann Demeester will depart the Frans Hals Museum’s directorship to helm the Kunsthaus Zürich in January 2023, replacing long-serving director Christopher Becker.
  • The MCA Chicago elected philanthropist and longtime trustee Cari Sacks as its new board chair.
  • Socrates Sculpture Park appointed Suzy Delvalle, ex-president and executive director of Creative Capital, as its interim executive director.
  • Collectors Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff are gifting 90 works and $5 million to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which will open a center for prints, drawings, and photos named in their honor this December.
  • The Louvre Abu Dhabi partnered with luxury watchmaker Richard Mille on an annual prize that will award one emerging artist a solo exhibition and $50,000.
  • The Pérez Art Museum Miami acquired Gisela McDaniels’s Speaking Seeds (2020) from Pilar Corrias.
  • Glenstone is adding a new building dedicated to a recent work by Richard Serra, set to open in spring/summer 2022.

Work of the Week

Oli Epp’s Whistleblower

Oli Epp Whistleblower (2017). Image courtesy Phillips.

Oli Epp Whistleblower (2017). Image courtesy Phillips.


Date:                      2017

Seller:                    Private Collection

Estimate:               £10,000 to 15,000 ($13,900 to $20,800)

Sale Price:             £144,900 ($200,800)

Sold at:                 Phillips’s New Now (London)


Prior to this spring, the only works by 27-years-young Oli Epp to reach the auction block were 41 separate prints that each sold for under $4,500 with fees. Then his painting The Magician (2018) more than quintupled its high estimate at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 25, selling for a premium-inclusive HK $1,000,000 (roughly $129,000).

That record lasted all of about seven weeks. When bidding closed on Whistleblower—a canvas fielding another of Epp’s blobby, faux-naive human figures (this time, a referee)—it had surpassed the most optimistic estimate roughly 10 times over, resetting the artist’s hammer high at £144,900 ($200,800).

Simon Tovey, head of Phillips’s New Now in London, said of the competition for the piece, “There has been strong demand on the primary gallery level for Oli Epp’s work, and clearly the subject of Whistleblower chimed with recent football fever,” a nod to the Euro 2021 tournament that ended Sunday with Italy triumphing over England on penalty kicks. Hopefully the painting’s breakaway success helped soothe the sports heartbreak surely suffered by at least a few of the house’s homegrown footie fans just a few days earlier.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

The post The Back Room: Go Figure appeared first on Midnight Publishing Group News.

Phillips London Just Set Nearly 20 Auction Records for Emerging Artists in Its $8.8 Million ‘New Now’ Sale

Phillips’s “New Now” contemporary art sale in London on July 13, which featured an eclectic mix of artworks by emerging, buzzed-about artists alongside established blue-chip names like Andy Warhol, Banksy, and KAWS, pulled in a sturdy £6.4 million ($8.8 million), the highest total for a Phillips London sale in the category.

The intermingling of well-established with new names in a single auction tends to lead to a clear split between the top prices, with the more recognizable stars bringing in more cash.

But the Phillips sale was something of an exception: while the top lots of the night were by Warhol and KAWS, much buzzed-about figurative artists like Genieve Figgis also made big splashes, and nearly 20 auction records were set for living artists, including Josh Smith, Ryan Gander, and Oli Epp. 

Andy Warhol Flowers (1964-65). Image courtesy Phillips.

Andy Warhol Flowers (1964-65). Image courtesy Phillips.

Of 224 lots offered, 198, or 86 percent, were sold. By value, the auction was 94 percent sold, a reflection of the number of lots that brought over-estimate prices. 

“The strength of the market was demonstrated through the enthusiasm and depth of bidding from bidders across 48 countries worldwide,” said Simon Tovey, the London-based head of the sale. He noted that six artists made their debut onto the secondary market.

The top lot was Warhol’s Flowers (1964–65), a classic image by the artist, which sold for a mid-estimate £1.35 million ($1.9 million) with premium.

The second-highest, though far lower, price was for an untitled painting by KAWS featuring Star Wars character C3P0 sporting a signature KAWS animated head with X’s for eyes. It sold for £352,800 ($488,804), just a notch over the high £350,000 estimate.

Banksy’s Love Is In The Air screenprint (2003), depicting one of the artist’s best-known images (a masked figure about to launch a bouquet of flowers as though it were a molotov cocktail) sold for £214,200 ($296,774), also meeting its estimate including the premium. (Final prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; estimates do not.)

A new record was set for Josh Smith, an artist who works with collage, sculpture, and printmaking in a style that mixes abstraction and figuration. Though he first became recognized for canvases that depicted his own name in expressive loops and swirls, many of the recent works are of Expressionist-style palm trees against sunset backdrops.

Oli Epp Whistleblower (2017). Image courtesy Phillips.

Oli Epp Whistleblower (2017). Image courtesy Phillips.

An untitled example of this subject matter from 2014 sold for a record £214,200 ($297,000) today, clearing the high £150,000 estimate by a wide margin. The previous record of $262,500 was set in May 2019, at Sotheby’s New York, also for a palm tree and sunset image.

Whistleblower (2017), a painting by Oli Epp, a London-based artist known for his deformed and quirky figures, shattered its modest estimate of £10,0000 to £15,000 to sell for £144,900 ($200,800), and was the seventh-highest price of the night.

The sale featured a number of African artists and artists of the African diaspora, some of whose works were sold to benefit the Africa First Artist Residency Program, with almost £220,000 ($305,000) raised in total. 

As part of this group, a record was set for Simphiwe Ndzube, who is originally from Cape Town and is based in Los Angeles. Figure With a Whip Leg (2019) sold for £37,800 ($52,372).

Ndzube’s work is inspired by the South African working-class Black men’s tradition of swenking, informal competitions that are part fashion show and part dance-off. He appeared on Midnight Publishing Group News’ 2018 list of Armory Show artists to watch.

Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa’s Land of Money and Honey (2017), an assemblage of metal bottle caps and plastic on plastic cord, sold for a record £12,600 ($17,457). 

Outside of that group, there were a number of works by African artists painting in the last half decade that were sold from galleries on the primary market not long ago.

Josh Smith Untitled (2014). Image courtesy Phillips.

Josh Smith Untitled (2014). Image courtesy Phillips.

These included a painting by Zimbabwe-born, South African artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, KWEKWE x HARARE x CAPETOWN WHEREVER YOU’RE FROM (2015), which sold for £81,900 ($113,000), far above the high £50,000 estimate. Meanwhile, Lady in Orange (2020) by Nigerian artist Chiderah Bosah, which was acquired directly from the artist by the consigner, sold for a double estimate £17,460 ($24,000).

The sale also featured a special charitable component organized by fashion designer Stella McCartney, who, during lockdown, reached out to 26 artists, colleagues, and friends to select and visualize letters from the alphabet to create a “McCartney A to Z Manifesto.”

Each artist was given absolute freedom to reimagine their own letter and to select their own charitable cause. Hajime Sorayama selected Médecins Sans Frontières Japan and Cindy Sherman supported Planned Parenthood.

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The Back Room: Billions and Billions Served

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.


This week in the Back Room: Billionaires give and take, Banksy prints go berserk, bidders chase youth, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,913 words).



Top of the Market

The Billionaire Dilemma

MacKenzie Bezos attends the SEAN PENN J/P HRO GALA: A Gala Dinner to Benefit J/P Haitian Relief Organization and a Coalition of Disaster Relief Organizations at Milk Studios on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

MacKenzie Bezos attends the SEAN PENN J/P HRO GALA: A Gala Dinner to Benefit J/P Haitian Relief Organization and a Coalition of Disaster Relief Organizations at Milk Studios on January 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Today, most people tend to view every fortune of a billion dollars or more like telepathy or the ability to fly: whether its owner is a superhero or supervillain all depends on how they use it.

This is especially true in the U.S. (and increasingly, U.K. and E.U.)  art industries, where a steady decline in public funding has handed mega-philanthropy a vital role in sustaining nonprofit institutions.

This principle was reinforced on Wednesday, when MacKenzie Scott, the novelist and philanthropist formerly known as Ms. Jeff Bezosannounced she was doling out $2.7 billion in unrestricted donations to 286 organizations across the country—including many affiliated with the arts, such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and United States Artists.



But is the promise of “Good Billionaires” like Scott actually hurting art and culture?

That’s the question I worked through thanks to journalist and author Anand Giridharadas’s incineration of beloved plutocrat Warren Buffett last weekend. And I think the answer is yes, on both the nonprofit and for-profit sides.

What provoked Giridharadas was a bombshell ProPublica investigation showing that America’s very wealthiest—even mega-philanthropists like Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates—have been legally exploiting the tax code in a unique way to pay next to (and sometimes literally!) nothing to Uncle Sam.

Mega-philanthropy has been the best camouflage for the damage, Giridharadas argues. What makes donations from “supposed Good Billionaires” more insidious than donations made by “the crooks and the scoundrels and the people manifestly looking for quick P.R. highs” is that they give so much more—and their public images are so much cleaner.

For instance, the late mega-collector/mega-donor Eli Broad wasn’t always the philanthropic angel he was often portrayed as. Carolina Miranda of the L.A. Times noted that he may have stuck LACMA with $5.5 million in additional construction costs on a building he otherwise financed on its campus (a Broad spox denied it), refused to endow that building for upkeep, and of course ultimately kept his collection to open his own museum.

The grand irony is that mega-donations from the Broads and Scotts of the world have become so important to art institutions partly because the U.S. is sacrificing trillions of dollars in tax revenue (see: potential public funding) to enrich the billionaires signing those fat philanthropic checks.



The Good Billionaire myth is hurting the art market, too. Why have the middle-class collectors who once sustained a more equitable version of the industry become an endangered species? Partly because the costs of simply getting by, let alone getting far enough ahead to acquire artwork, have risen so much.

According to Bloomberg, the cost of college and the median home price in the U.S. are each about 50 percent higher for millennials than they were for boomers, yet millennial wages are up only 20 percent. Full-time employment and robust benefits (pensions, healthcare, paid family leave) have become vanishingly rare too. Public programs are not well funded enough to pick up the slack.

And part of this has been enabled by the narrative that the superrich will take care of the rest of us, including when it comes to art and cultural spending. Even though some deserving folks occasionally win the Good Billionaire lottery, it’s a losing trade most of the time.



The Bottom Line

I sincerely think MacKenzie Scott is trying to help nonprofits with her wealth. But her would-be remedy is only treating a symptom, not the illness—namely, the tax system that enabled her ex and his billionaire peers to build their fortunes. Until or unless that system is reformed, prepare for the institutional sector and the art market to become even more grossly polarized than they already are.

[Read More]



Market Moment

Banksy Prints Are Printing Money

Banksy, White Idiots, or maybe it’s called Idiots (White), who can really say these days. Courtesy Burnt Banksy’s Twitter account.

You can get the god’s eye view of Banksy’s prints market in three annual auction-sales totals:

  • 2011: $1.7 million
  • 2020: $10.3 million
  • 2021 (to date): $33.6 million.

Whether that growth qualifies as robust or cancerous depends on your perspective. What’s undeniable from Eileen Kinsella’s deep dive is that the street-art legend’s editions market has transformed in multiple ways over the past 10 years.


How It Started

Around 2002, Banksy released his first commercial prints through multiple print galleries: primarily Tom Tom (which later became Art Republic) and Pictures on Walls, run by Banksy’s longtime right-hand man Steve Lazarides. (The two have since split. Sources say it wasn’t pretty.)

Prices were around £200 to £300 each. Editions rarely came with certificates of authenticity (COA). Sometimes buyers didn’t even get a receipt!

Fun Fact: “Some dealers would pay 50 students £50 each to be in the queue with a bonus if they got something.” —Brian Balfour-Oatts of London dealership Archeus/Post-Modern.


The Turning Point

In 2007, total auction sales of Banksy prints leaped 10x year-over-year, from about $127,000 in 2006 to $1.3 million.

The next year Banksy launched Pest Control to authenticate his works and police fakes. After 2009, every genuine Banksy came with a Pest Control COA. The outfit can retroactively issue certificates for works made before its founding too.

The artist also took more control of his primary-market sales, sometimes offering works through random lotteries. Fun Fact: In 2010, Banksy directly offered a now-popular print, Choose Your Weapon, showing a figure in a hooded sweatshirt walking a Keith Haring-style dog. After the hours-long line got hooligan-ish, he released a supplemental “queue jumping” edition for the fans who were boxed out.


How It’s Going

It’s wild! Mainly for three reasons:

  • Speculation
  • Major auction houses’ influence
  • Overseas buyers piling in (particularly in Japan and Korea)

Since Banksy has not run a random lottery for some time, demand can only be fulfilled through auctions and resale dealers. Christie’s and Sotheby’s now each hold two dedicated Banksy print sales per year, “many of which have been 100 percent sold,” Eileen writes.  

Balfour-Oatts relays that “some of the mega-galleries handle Banksy works quite often, but are very coy about saying so.”

No wonder Pest Control is inundated with requests—and sometimes slow-walks COA issuance for recent prints to combat flippers. This has led some Banksy collectors (and even smaller auction houses) to trade prints with the promise of a COA to follow—which is not normal! (Other evidence of authenticity, such as emails trails, are often substituted, but still…)

Fun Fact: This March, one of the queue jumping editions of Choose Your Weapon sold at Sotheby’s for £201,600. So don’t expect this rocket ship to run out of fuel anytime soon.

[Read More]



Data Dip

Follow the Money to Youth

© Artnet Analytics 2021.

© Midnight Publishing Group Analytics 2021.

If you’ve ever laid awake at night wondering how genre-by-genre auction sales in May fared before, during, and after COVID, today is your lucky day. (Also, may I recommend considering a spa vacation, or at least switching to herbal tea after lunch?)

With the return of the traditional slate of premier May auctions in New York, it’s no surprise this year’s biggest resurgences were in the Impressionist-Modern and postwar-contemporary categories. (We define these by artist’s birthdates: Imp-Mod covers artists born from 1821 through 1910, and P.W.C. covers artists born from 1911 through 1974.)

But the most interesting story in the data is the pronounced shift toward youth over the past two years. While Imp-Mod sales came in more than $322 million lower (about 25 percent) this May compared to the same month in 2019, postwar and contemporary sales were down a mere $76 million (roughly six percent) in the same face-off.

P.W.C. works also outsold Imp-Mod works by more than $162 million this May, flipping the script from the 2019 May sales. Sales of ultra-contemporary works (made by artists born in 1975 or later) ascended almost 250 percent over this two-year span, from $35.7 million to $86.2 million last month.

Look for the push toward present-day talent to continue as the market keeps gathering strength in the months ahead.


“What does every rich and famous person want more than anything? Relevancy… You have a Warhol Marilyn? Cool, we know you’re rich. But if you have, say, Christina Quarles, you’re of our time.”
—Anonymous dealer on the allure of the young artists being added by mega-galleries. (For details, check Nate Freeman on Gagosian’s farm team.)



Express Checkout

Anonymous Online Sales Aren’t Just for Crypto + Three More Market Morsels


LiveArt Market, ex-Sotheby’s dealmaker Adam Chinn’s peer-to-peer platform enabling buyers and sellers to transact anonymously, went live by invitation. Anna Brady unpacked how it works. (The Art Newspaper)

  • The platform reported $5 million in sales during the early days of its soft opening.
  • Works by Amoako Boafo and Ed Clark went for six figures each.


Can Paris unseat London as the top Euro art market? Melanie Gerlis dons a beret to investigate. (ARTnews)


London Gallery Weekend was a “smashing success” but will it kill off art fairs? (Midnight Publishing Group News Pro)


The Robert Indiana estate reached a settlement with its biggest backer after three years of legal hell. (Midnight Publishing Group News)



Paint Drippings

Here’s what made a mark in the latest Wet Paint (and elsewhere).

  • Skarstedt will open a Paris gallery (and poached Maria Cifuentes from Phillips Paris to run it.)

  • Cady Noland secretly installed her first new work in decades at Galerie Buchholz in NYC.

  • The Nasher Museum at Duke University acquired a painting by Korakrit Arunanondchai.

  • Julian Schnabel will be the subject of the Brant Foundation’s September show.

  • McArthur Binion is now represented by Xavier Hufkens, with his first solo exhibition at the gallery set for fall 2022. (Binion will also continue working with Lehmann MaupinMassimo De Carlo, and Richard Gray.)

  • Ashley Bickerton joined the stable of Various Small Fires.

  • Blum & Poe added ceramicist Kazunori Hamana to its roster and will solo-show him in L.A. this September.

  • NYC’s Company Gallery now reps the Women’s History Museum collective founded by Mattie Barringer and Amanda McGowan.

  • Christie’s will open pop-up spaces in Southampton (this month) and Aspen (July 3).

  • König debuts its showroom in Monaco (at the Villa Nuvola) today.


[Read More]


Artwork of the Week

Gio Swaby’s Love Letter 5

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5 (2021). Photo courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

Gio Swaby, Love Letter 5 (2021). Photo courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.


Date:                     2021

Seller:                   Claire Oliver Gallery

Price Range:         $25,000 to $50,000

Acquired By:         The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Gio Swaby is on a trajectory unimaginable to the art market a generation ago. A 29 year-old interdisciplinary artist hailing from the Bahamas, she is still in the midst of her M.F.A. studies at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design University. Yet she joined the roster of Harlem’s Claire Oliver Gallery last year without ever meeting the dealer—after curator Danielle Krysa brokered an introduction via Instagram. Her inaugural solo exhibition at Oliver’s space was arranged remotely during the shutdown.

That exhibition, “Gio Swaby: Both Sides of the Sun,” celebrated Black womanhood through threaded-line portraits and silhouettes where textile patterns echoed the models’ natural curves. It also sold out before the end of its run on June 5. Private buyers included author Roxane Gay and actor Hill Harper, and Swaby’s waiting list now swells beyond 100 names.

More impressively, eight institutions acquired work (pending final board approval). A gallery spokesperson confirmed that one of those eight, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, even reworked its upcoming exhibition “Fabric of A Nation” to include Love Letter 5, which it officially acquired this week. Just imagine what Swaby can do now that she can meet people in person again.


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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