Why Art Addicts Go on Shopping Sprees and Then Don’t Pick Up Their New Artworks… for Years

Collectors often say they are art addicts. They buy too much. More than they need, or have space for. They spend too much. More than can feed a small village. 

A true collector, goes the old adage, is a person who’s exceeded the walls of a house (or two, or three) and is buying art for storage.

Even wilder? In a twist that may inspire some folks to reach for pitchforks, some collectors don’t even bother to pick up the art they’ve bought. Studios and storage rooms are filled with artworks that have been invoiced, paid for—and then left behind for months and even years.

I heard a story about a museum trustee who agreed to buy a painting by Robert Nava for $550,000 over drinks at Zero Bond in New York last year, wired the money to the seller the following day, then didn’t bother getting the work for seven months. A partner at David Zwirner gallery paid $22,000 for a 7.5-foot-tall Richard Serra print at a charity auction for Independent Curators International in 2018, but was too busy to pick it up till 2022. Two commissioned paintings, each priced about $28,000, are lingering in the Los Angeles studio of artist Canyon Castator months after being completed, paid for, and ready to ship.

“When you are stinking rich, have unlimited buying power, and you are buying indiscriminately, it’s hard to keep track,” said Kenny Schachter, an artist, collector and fellow Midnight Publishing Group News columnist. “It’s sick but it’s true.”

Can I help you find something? Kenny Schachter presiding over his Sotheby's sale. Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.

Can I help you find something? Kenny Schachter presiding over his Sotheby’s sale. Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.

I first interpreted this trend as a sign of a slowdown in the art market, the froth coming off—or maybe the low tide that exposes all the broken shells and mollusk skeletons on the now-visible ocean floor.

Then, as my reporting progressed, I realized it’s a much deeper topic, rooted as much in compulsive behavior as in the growing commodification of art. There are also pragmatic reasons, ranging from collectors undergoing house renovations to sensible efforts to consolidate shipments—and, yes, some penny-pinching.

“If you have a house filled with art and you’re buying stuff at every single art fair, every wave of auctions, and at galleries all the time, where do all these waves of art go?” Schachter said. “They go into storage and they get left behind.”

Schachter would know. As a compulsive collector, he had amassed so much art it long filled storage spaces in New Jersey and Switzerland in addition to his apartment in New York. To raise money for his passion, Schachter has organized four annual, mostly no-reserve auctions at Sotheby’s, aptly titled “The Hoarder” (and plans new editions every December for the rest of his life, he said.)

During COVID, Schachter did a series of online shows; one work sold to a private museum but went unclaimed for more than a year, he said. As a curator, he’s been on the receiving end when artists left their art behind with a gallery. He estimated that about 10 percent of all art acquisitions are not claimed following the purchase.

“Things just fall into this gray area in the same way as when you take your clothes to get cleaned and then you forget to pick it up,” he said.

One London-based collector told me he’s left paintings and sculptures at galleries for years after paying for them.

“I see something I like, I want to buy it right this second,” he said. “Then I forget. It’s 100 percent ADD.”

The Axelrod's safe, "Billions" set piece, image © Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Michael Shaw.

The Axelrod’s safe, “Billions” set piece, image © Nicole Rivelli, courtesy of Michael Shaw.

Delayed pickups can be difficult for small galleries that have limited storage. Francisco Correa Cordero, owner and director of Lubov gallery in New York, said he wasn’t thrilled when China’s Xiao Museum left behind a group of eight purchased paintings for seven months. Why the delay? The museum’s founder had gone on a shopping spree in New York and was waiting to consolidate all artworks in one massive shipment, Correa Cordero said.

“I understood the reason,” he added. “But it was kind of annoying because it occupied a lot of my storage.”

While some collectors have legitimate reasons—a leak in an apartment or construction delays—“I suspect mostly they don’t want to pay for storage and shipping,” the gallerist said. “Or they want to delay it as much as possible.”

New York collector Evan Ruster would be the first to admit that he doesn’t like to pay for shipping and storage. He’s planning to go to Vienna to pick up a painting that’s been at the gallery for three years. Another painting has remained in an East Hampton gallery for a year and a half.

“Really dreading that one,” Ruster said about a 6-by-4-foot painting that’s too big for his apartment. (Too “cheap” to pay for outside storage, Ruster built a storage up in his ceiling for 15-20 artworks, a couple of paintings are under the bed, and several hang two-deep on the walls, he said.)

Is he an addict? “Absolutely,” Ruster said. “For every $10 I make, I spend $11 on art. It’s a problem.”

And it’s not just trendy artists or gallery splurges—people who purchase high-priced art at auction sometimes also neglect to collect their winnings, so to speak. The mega-rich who are buying there aren’t looking for free storage, of course, according to Thomas Danziger, a lawyer who specializes in art transactions. (At least on paper, auction houses say they start charging collectors for storage after 30 days post-sale and may even sell the object.)

“A lot of it has to do with tax issues,” he said. “People take a view that they can delay the tax. Maybe they don’t have the cash and they need to sell something else. People do a lot of things to move assets around. Many of the richest people in the world are not liquid.”

So, what explains the mindset of someone who spends tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artwork and then doesn’t bother to pick it up?

Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Until April (2003). © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of Tate.

Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Until April (2003). © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of Tate.

I turned to Allen H. Weg, a licensed psychologist who specializes in obsessive compulsive disorder. For the most part, he said, the high associated with buying art can be just another addiction among many.

“People who are addicted to gambling or addicted to sex or addicted to food, it’s the same sort of thing,” Weg said. “Some people are addicted to the high that you get from engaging in very extreme sports. You can get addicted to the emotional experience of getting a tattoo.”

Addictions aren’t always pathological—they can provide a shot of adrenaline or help us calm down and feel in control. “It’s not a problem unless it’s a problem,” Weg said.

Left-behind art may also reveal an investment-minded buyer, he explained: “It’s mine. I have control over it. I don’t necessarily need it to be this place or that place. I just know it’s mine wherever it is.”

“He was in trouble financially and literally disappeared,” Klein recalled this week. He managed to get his work back after paying about $500 for its storage.

“This was the only time in my career I was ripped off by the gallery,” he said.” I guess I’m lucky.”

Canyon Castator, courtesy of the artist.

Canyon Castator, courtesy of the artist.

Going back to Castator, the Los Angeles painter of aggressive, pop-culture tableaus, he admitted that being stuck with the works that have been paid for isn’t the worst thing—it certainly beats being stuck with the unsold and unpaid works. Yet it can leave a bad aftertaste.

For one thing, he worked hard to complete the two commissioned canvases on time.

“I got it done,” he said. “It looks amazing on Instagram. It paid for my rent and dinners. But there’s no finality. It’s still in the studio.”

This scenario is so common that it became an inside joke among his artist friends at the Mohilef Studios, he said.

“I am going to send the collector a second invoice—for storage,” goes the joke. 

But of course no one ever follows through on the threat.

“Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?” Castator said.

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Last Year’s Art Stars Make Way for Even Younger, Cheaper Debutants in London’s Auctions as ‘Voracious’ Speculators Seek New Blood

Where is Jadé? Where is Anna? Where is Christina? 

The familiar artist names that have regularly set off fireworks at recent high-stakes contemporary-art auctions are conspicuously missing from the lineup of London sales that are scheduled to kick off February 28. Their absence is all the more intriguing given that London’s auctions are the first public market test of the year, offering an important snapshot of the trends that are crystalizing as the season progresses to Hong Kong and New York.

One thing is clear: There’s a noticeable drop in the offerings of Black portraiture, bro-primitivism, and Spanish New Wave at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. (Where are you, Otis, Jordy, and Rafa?)

Sotheby’s will offer the week’s only Nicolas Party painting, and Christie’s will present the sole canvas by Amoako Boafo—two artists whose works used to be ubiquitous. There’s not a trace of Matthew Wong, whose $48.5 million auction total in 2021 was halved last year. 

Tastes change fast in the investment-driven art market. One of the first places to reflect a shift is the speculative ultra-contemporary segment, where prices for some artists were recently moving up-up-up with lightning speed. The sector’s auction sales grew 500 percent in five years, peaking at $741.4 million in 2021, when they surpassed the Old Masters, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. Now, ultra-contemporary is on the downswing. Last year the broader segment declined by 10 percent, to $668.2 million.

And because the feeding frenzy for many of these market darlings has subsided, speculators have begun testing new-to-the-scene artists. Auction houses are only too eager to offer the stage. Welcome to the Flip Class of 2023.

“There’s a voracious and enduring appetite among collectors for the new,” said David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for the Americas and co-head of marquee sales. “They are constantly seeking out new names. The auctions have become a place where a lot of collectors are introduced to new artists for the first time, and we tailor our sales meticulously to try to really paint a picture of what are the most interesting works being made today.”

Mohammed Sami, <i>Family Issues I</i> (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mohammed Sami, Family Issues I (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Aptly titled “The Now,” Sotheby’s evening sale will begin with Mohammed Sami, an auction newbie whose 2019 painting of a carpeted room is estimated at £50,000 to £70,000. Born in Iraq, the London-based Sami is gaining curatorial attention, with a solo show up now at the Camden Arts Centre in the U.K. capital. His New York debut at Luhring Augustine gallery will feature paintings currently included in the 58th Carnegie International survey.

“Impossible to get primary,” an art advisor told me this week about Sami’s new works. It’s a perfect scenario to stage a multi-phone bidding war and set the mood for the evening auction.

In the same vein, Christie’s will start its 20th/21st Century evening sale with Michaela Yearwood-Dan, a young Londoner of Caribbean heritage, whose large and lush floral tableau is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. Her prices surged to $388,798 at Phillips in December. A recent addition to Marianne Boesky Gallery, she has a show coming up in April in New York.

Phillips positioned Belgian artist Ben Sledsens as its opening act on March 2. Looking stylistically like a cross between Party and Scott Kahn, the painting Wanderer With Dog is estimated at £80,000 to £120,000.

The new crop of artists represents a change of guard from the earlier, pandemic-era cohort; their lower prices and greater resale upside is just what the flippers crave.

“There’s a huge pack of speculators,” said an auction executive. “It’s all pump and dump. And then they are on to the next thing. And auction houses just reflect what artists are being actively sought-after.”

Emerging-art speculators typically don’t buy half-a-million-dollar artworks. Instead they look for things under $50,000 and then create hype.

“They’d resell this work for $150,000 and it would be considered a great result,” said an auction specialist. “Then somehow $350,000 became the new $150,000, and then $600,000 became the new $350,000. It’s just like a product of this frenzied environment for young, contemporary.”

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us Up On Us (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Christina Quarles, The Night That Fell Upon Us (Up On Us) (2019). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

It’s a lucrative but risky game. Avery Singer’s art reached its high total of $21.5 million at auction in 2021—and then dropped 28 percent in 2022. Christina Quarles peaked at $10.7 million in 2022, with an auction record of $4.5 million for Night Fell Upon Us (Up On Us), sold by collector Howard Rachofsky in May. Since then, not a single price has come even close.

“Yes, there haven’t been any paintings that have matched the price that we were able to achieve,” Galperin acknowledged of the Quarles market. “But I would also say that there haven’t been any paintings that have come up that matched the quality of this work.”

Ironically, the higher the auction results, the less attractive artists become to speculators. Their markets may remain robust (auction houses would kill to get an A+ Quarles or Jadé Fadojutimi), but trading volumes typically decline when primary prices catch up to secondary values and arbitrage goes away.

A new painting by Anna Weyant and Fadojutimi at Gagosian would set you back $500,000 or more. Hauser & Wirth was asking as much as $1.2 million for large-scale Quarles canvases in her New York exhibition last year, even as most of her older works were fetching $600,000 to $800,000 at auction.

“There are a lot of people who want a painting at $100,000,” an auction expert said. “There are a lot fewer who can pay $1 million. Instead of 20 bidders you get one or two.” 

Meanwhile, new paintings by these artists are still too fresh to be resold. (Stringent non-resale agreements don’t help either.)

“You don’t wanna get blacklisted,” the auction executive said. “Especially since they put the prices at around the level that they were selling secondary. Where is the real upside? Why ruin your relationship with the gallery?”

Other speculative bubbles are getting deflated because of the overproduction by artists and taste changes among collectors.

The frenzy over Black figuration, for example, has subsided dramatically, advisors and auction specialists said. Auction houses are putting brakes on what they take. For example, there’s suddenly a lot less work by Isshaq Ismail, whose seemingly endless supply of heads flooded the market in the past year, selling for as much as $367,541 a pop last March.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, <i>Love me nots</i> (2021). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Love me nots (2021). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Bro-primitivism is another area of contraction. There’s just one painting by Robert Nava going under the hammer in London, at Christie’s evening sale. Auction houses are saying no to countless works by Jordy Kerwick, a stark reversal from October when his painting fetched $242,967 at Phillips in London. Ditto Susumu Kamijo, a Japanese artist whose poodle paintings have sold for as much as $274,724 since his auction debut in 2020, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

“People don’t have the confidence that they’ll make more than they paid,” the auction specialist said.

When the Zombie Formalism bubble burst, collectors watched how their investments plummeted at auction. The houses learned their lesson and came up with a new strategy.

“When the results start going down, we get really selective,” an executive said. “I don’t want it in my evening sale, I’ll put it in the day sale and off-season sale. So these things just get downgraded or they disappear.”

Others see this as a natural market evolution, from gluttony to refinement.

“The highest-quality artists rise to the top, and the public market starts to reflect that,” Galperin said. “You have extraordinary artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who has an incredible show at the Tate right now, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who’s going to open with Zwirner next year. These are artists  who are making Black portraiture and who are in extraordinary demand.”

But supply of top-quality work is always tight. Which is why auction houses are constantly on the lookout for new names whose work is related but less expensive and easier to get.

“You’ll get somebody who’s similar, an artist who’s like the B-version or Johnny-come-lately,” the auction executive said. “You see this in music, too.”

Ben Sledsens, <i>Wanderer with Dog</i> (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

Ben Sledsens, Wanderer With Dog (2017-18). Courtesy of Phillips.

That’s what Sledsens (estimated at £80,000 to £120,000) may be to Nicholas Party (estimated at £900,000 to £1.3 million); and Angela Heisch’s Egg White Blue (estimated at £20,000 to £30,000) to Loie Hollowell’s Split Orbs in purple, ochre, and… (estimated at £400,000 to £600,000) at Phillips.

“If you can’t get a Marlene Dumas, you can get Claire Tabouret,” an advisor said about two female artists, one generation apart.

Tabouret’s market will be tested by her 2014 painting, Les débutantes (blanc lunaire), estimated at £250,000 to £350,000 at Christie’s. Another version of the painting fetched $388,454 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2021.

“It was just truly mindless for a while,” the auction executive said about the feeding frenzy in the ultra-contemporary market. “I feel like there’s a tiny, tiny bit of sense creeping in, people questioning why they’re spending so much on these things.”

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Art Collectives Were the Talk of the Art World in the Last Few Years. Has Their Moment Passed?

Artist collectives are by no means new phenomena. Still, their presence in the art world has been largely fringe, only rarely intersecting with mainstream notions of commercial success and celebrity clout. Recently, however, as museums in particular came under pressure to address social change, ideas like “collective action” and “mutual aid” have seized the spotlight.

For a moment it seemed as if the notion of cooperation might outbid competition in the art world. Suddenly, collectives were among the art world’s ascendant stars. The question is if this moment is now over.

A series of notable institutional appointments marked the end of the last decade, and seemed to signify an end—or at least a re-thinking—of art-world individualism. In 2019, Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa was named to head up the prestigious German exhibition Documenta, seemingly touching off a new era. Their concept? To base their show on collective creativity from the Global South, creating “a collective of collectives.”

That same year, the Turner Prize shortlisted four individual artists who decided to meld into a flash art collective for the purposes of accepting the esteemed prize, flying in the face of the art-world winner-take-all premise. How outdated and selfish individual prize winners suddenly seemed.

Naturally, as a next step, only collectives were shortlisted in the subsequent edition of the Turner Prize, in 2021. Canada’s own version of the Turner, the Sobey Art award, declared that same year that the two dozen artists shortlisted were all winners. The cash was distributed among them. In the face of financial hardships aggravated by the pandemic, individualism was out, collaboration was in.

Tai Shani, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Lawrence Abu Hamdan become an artist collective and the next Turner Prize named only collectives.

Tai Shani, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo and Lawrence Abu Hamdan celebrate after being announced as the joint winners of Turner Prize 2019. Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Stuart Wilson/Getty Images for Turner Contemporary.

That same tipping-point year, 2019, was also the year that the collective WHW from Zagreb, Croatia, was nominated to head the Kunsthalle in Vienna, a prestigious contemporary art museum nestled in the resplendent Museum Quarter in the Austrian capital. It was the first appointment of its kind to such an established institution, and it seemed to cap off this new cultural wave. The three curators, Nataša Ilić, Ivet Ćurlin, and Sabina Sabolović, would share two salaries three ways; they would be reachable at one email address.

By 2021, the sentiment of collective action truly entering the mainstream was also hitting the art market canon as well, largely by way of collective buying attempts. ConstitutionDAO, a failed exercise by a crypto-powered “decentralized autonomous organization” to buy an original copy of the U.S. constitution from Sotheby’s, saw micro investors sweep into a blue-chip auction.

Crypto is now more associated now with cynicism than idealism—but you must recall that the crypto boom came in the wake of the Gamestop affair, with its rhetoric of taking on Wall Street for the small investor; ConstitutionDAO was all about returning the art market “to the people.”

Ruangrupa’s Documenta incorporated multiple crypto initiatives, including a scheme to use crypto to build an alternative economy from the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding. The vogue for artist collectives was not just old-fashioned anti-market purity, but arose from practical concerns with a pragmatic focus, proposing new, shared ways of surviving.

Museums Quarter is home to Kunsthalle Wien, directed WHW, one of the first collectives to take over an insitution

Museums Quarter is home to the Kunsthalle Vienna. (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

Dreams of collectivity in the financialized and non-financialized zones of the art world have deep roots. They tend to surge forward in moments of widespread crisis, as they did post World War 2 and again in the throes of Occupy Wall Street, post 2008 meltdown. But they were usually outside the door of the art world center, banging to get in. What’s different about the most recent period is that it really felt as if this door had been opened.

The longer history of collectives and collective politics were at play here: WHW are named in reference to a Marxist idea of “what, how, and for whom,” while Ruangrupa brought forward their socialist-inflected lumbung concept. Both were founded one year apart, in 2000 and 1999, respectively. It took two decades and various kinds of social upheaval in the wider world, but the time for these ideas to take charge seemed at hand.

It was no longer about just exhibiting collectives like the Guerrilla Girls or Superflex (although, in keeping with the zeitgeist, data shows that the Guerrilla Girls were one of the most collected artists in this period, and Superflex one of the most-shown at biennials), but about integrating collective ways of work into the bureaucratic strata of institutions, changing how they functioned at the deepest structure.

Ruangrupa’s expansive vision, the discussion around the Turner Prize, and WHW’s appointment all signaled a deep desire to flatten hierarchies. How much could such top-down cultural institutions truly mirror this method?

Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they never truly wanted to.

Collectives like DAOs tried to buy art.

Message on the landing page of the ConstitutionDAO during the sale.

Have We Passed Peak Collective?

There are signs that the moment, however profound it seems, has passed.

Last December, after four years, WHW was ousted from their job. The reasoning given was wooly at best—the collective called the motivations “unclear and unfair.” The Croatian collective re-applied, and were denied. Kunsthalle board member Boris Marte resigned in protest of the decision—but no matter: WHW will be gone from the Kunsthalle in June 2024.

Their program, which was focused on highlighting overlooked narratives in Eastern European, de-colonialist, and feminist themes, was generally well-received. There were no major controversies. If their attendance numbers were the issue, that would be unwarranted given that most of their time running the Kunsthalle was done under Covid-19 lockdowns (museum attendance has gone down at most museums, including ones like the Louvre).

What seems more likely is that the pushback against WHW, Ruangrupa, and the whole collectivity vibe can, at least in part, be read within a wider push against the “woke” politics that marked the mid-2010s, of which these appointments and shared prizes were very much a part. WHW too noted a “broader ideological consolidation” across European institutions, calling it an “uncreative response” to manifold crises.

What, How & for Whom/WHW, artistic directors Kunsthalle Wien (from left to right): Sabina Sabolović, Nataša Ilić and Ivet Ćurlin, photo: Katarina Šoškić

The ouster of WHW came only a three months after the close of Documenta 15, which bloomed from that “collective of collectives” into a bumper crop of more than 1,500 artists that confused many critics deeply attached to Western ideas of art. The bigger issue: Ruangrupa’s efforts to bring a new working model and new focus on non-Western contemporary art into Documenta was marred as the group tried, collectively, and failed, collectively, to face and mitigate accusations of antisemitism in their show.

In June, antisemitic caricatures were spotted in a work by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi. While charges and counter-charges of discrimination and anti-semitism rage on, blame was put on the collective model itself for having created something so unwieldy that it let such problematic material slip through. (“This is exactly what happens when the authority over the form and content of the exhibition is subcontracted many levels away from the main curators to other groups and individuals in the name of collectivity and diversity,” wrote artist and critic Mohammad Salemy.)

Due to the decentralized curatorial approach and its sheer size (the curators admitted that the show became “too big” in my interview as the show closed), support teams, the art mediators, and tech teams were under exceptional pressure.

Collective responsibility means collective accountability, which is uncomfortable in the face of an acute crisis. Yet, either way, the media-fueled scandal of Documenta 15 will likely scare Documenta’s next finding committee off of choosing any risk-prone presentations. As collectivity backfires in the public view, individual art stars will once again prevail. It’s a fair bet that Documenta 16 will revert to a celebrity-curator head and that it will look more like a neatly curated museum show than the previous editions before it. If it sprawls, it will sprawl by giving a small number of artists a lot more room. I hope I am wrong.

Back to Flying Solo

The more social and process-based work of artist collectives may be written-off as too resource-intensive given the current battles in museums around rising costs. The irony here is that collective forms are often born from creative survival in times of economic pain and struggle, and could teach a lot about being inventive and building more sustainably.

But it may be then that the retreat from these collective experiments is more about values, retreating to tradition instead of embracing new ways of working. The new austerity and impending recession will likely mean a move back to the safe, based largely on what appeals to the most powerful funders. Documenta, Kunsthalle Vienna, and the Turner Prize have storied pasts to stack against these recent experiments, which could be, in retrospect, glitchy publicity blips on their chronology.

Art collective Ruangrupa standing together

The curators of Documenta 2022: Ruangrupa members Reza Afisina, Indra Ameng, Farid Rakun, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Iswanto Hartono, Ajeng Nurul Aini, Ade Darmawan, Julia Sarisetiati, Mirwan Andan. Photo: Gudskul / Jin Panji

Collectives showing up at the heart of the art world power structure as a “trend” always meant the risk of going out of fashion would be high. This is disconcerting, not least because collective production is not just about aesthetics, but it often is motivated by very real concerns around social justice, from individuals brought together over a joint social or political aim.

Felwine Sarr, co-author the French restitution report in 2019, said something in another context, which I think resonates here succinctly: When French president Macron “opened a door” with his publicity statements on the restitution of African art, Sarr warned “we have to put our foot in the door so that it cannot close again.” So it is with the recent advances in art with collective practice.

If it is back to star creative directors and single-name winners, and if there is little discussion about what just happened—and why it went away—what did it all mean, beyond momentary virtue signaling? Within a logic where progress can all too often be simply symbolic, individuals will have to fight harder to meaningfully entrench the valuable lessons brought forward by the collective initiatives of the recent past, and keep that door wedged open.

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New Collectors and Museum Interest Help Drive New York’s Old Master Auctions to $150 Million—a High Not Seen in Years

The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

Both houses also held smaller related sales of Old Master drawings, which reflected lower price points and wider circles of interest. Underscoring the serious quality and connoisseur demand at even these smaller day sales, this morning, the Rijksmuseum scooped up an early 17th-century bronze figure of an “écorché” man by Willlem Danielsz. van Tetrode for $1.5 million, while the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the bronze group of Apollo Flaying Marsyas (1691–1700) by Giovanni Battista Foggini for $882,000. More on the marquee museum purchases later.

The total for the main sales at both houses was just under $150 million ($149.4 million). While of course not an exact apples-to-apples comparison, consider that the most recent round of major sales in London last month, pulled in a combined $56 million, and that marked one of the best seasons in years. As Midnight Publishing Group News noted at the time, experiments to reinvent the category—such as developing new art historical narratives, several of which have highlighted female artists, and extensive presale touring of work—seem to be paying off.

“There were more paintings on the market this week than there had been for many years and it was hugely encouraging how many important pictures sold,” said Milo Dickinson, who recently left Christie’s Old Masters department to take on the role of managing director at Dickinson in London. “There is clearly more depth to the Old Master market than is often appreciated,” he added.

“It is always hard to say who is buying what, but there were new faces at the auction and of course some of the old faces were buying for other new faces not seen,” said veteran New York-based dealer Robert Simon. “There is little question that new buyers are beginning to recognize the fundamental value in Old Masters, especially in contrast to contemporary art.”

Further, a calendar move by Christie’s seems to have created greater cohesion and momentum. As Dickinson noted, Christie’s moved their sales back to January after “a failed experiment moving to April.” Now, both auction houses are aligned again in the sale calendar across all major Old Master sales, he said, noting it “had a positive impact on the sales as there was visibly a much better turnout from private clients, museums, and the trade during the week, and there was a renewed buzz and excitement.”

Christie’s said the Safra offering “showed the power of the no-reserve strategy,” since all works found buyers. Ten were backed by third-party, or outside bids. The highest price of $2.7 million was paid for an album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It marked a new auction record for Oudry.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Image courtesy Christie's.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

It was followed by the $1 million result for J.M.W. Turner’s The Splügen Pass (albeit it missing the low $1.5 million estimate) and the price of $945,000 paid for Joos van Cleve’s Portrait of a gentleman holding gloves, half-length.

Dickinson said that Christie’s “took a significant risk by offering the Safra collection with no reserves and although there were some low prices, Christie’s did well to ensure there was competitive bidding on all the top lots.”

The top lot of the main sale was a double portrait by Goya, Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés, seated on a sofa with a lap-dog; and Portrait of her mother Doña Leonora Antonia Valdés de Barruso, seated on a chair holding a fan, that sold for a mid-estimate $16.4 million (estimate: $15–20 million), more than doubling the existing $7.7 million auction record for the artist.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie's Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie’s Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

The second highest price of the sale, given for another Turner, was just a fraction of that, at $4.6 million for Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. The third-highest price of $2.9 million was realized for Pieter Brueghel II’s The Kermesse of Saint George.

Meanwhile, another work from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, Canaletto’s The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with an embarkation, traditionally identified as the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740, sold for $2.7 million. It was intentionally kept back from the blockbuster Paul Allen collection sale held last November.

“Whoever bought it got an excellent painting for a fraction of the price that it would have made if it was the initial collection sale, which shows that context is very important,” said Dickinson.

In addition to the Goya and Oudry results, Christie’s set new records for Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de Lairesse, Thomas Daniell, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores, called Penot.

“The Old Masters market showed depth and strength today,” commented François de Poortere, Christie’s head of Old Master Paintings. “American bidders led the way, along with Europe and China, and strong activity from the trade.”

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s started off the morning with a bang with the aforementioned Fisch Davidson Collection—widely considered one of the most important collections of Baroque art to ever appear on the market. The entire sale was guaranteed, reportedly at high prices by both the house and various outside guarantors or third-party backers.

One such outside guarantee was for the blockbuster top lot, Peter Paul Rubens’ Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, which sold for just under $27 million, a new auction record.

The next two highest lots scored identical prices of $4.89 million each, namely Christ crowned with thorns by Valentin de Boulogne, and Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene by Orazio Gentileschi. Both were estimated at $4 million to $6 million.

The Stockholm Nationalmuseum bought a painting of a young man asleep before an open book by an artist active in the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, for $945,000.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist Image courtest Sotheby's.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the main sale, one of the fireworks was a newly rediscovered and restituted painting, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper. It sold to a buyer in the room following a five-minute bidding contest, for $10.7 million, doubling its $5 million high estimate, and setting a new auction record for the artist. Proceeds of the sale will benefit Selfhelp Community Services, which supports Holocaust survivors in North America, and The Lighthouse Guild, a Jewish healthcare organization.

The Cleveland Museum of Art also bought Anna Dorothea Therbusch’s Portrait of a scientist seated at a desk by candlelight for $441,000. It was also previously from the J.E. Safra collection. An insider said that given that Christie’s had the lion’s share of Safra material, this may have been part of a previous consignment to Sotheby’s. Safra had acquired it from Sotheby’s London in December 1996 for $64,500 (£38,900), according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Dutch offerings from the Theiline Scheumann collection, where eight of the 12 works on offer were sold, was led by Frans van Mieris the Elder’s A young woman sealing a letter by candlelight, which sold for $2.7 million.

Dickinson said the new influx of buyers may make for more robust sales, but also some uncertainty as to demand. “There are new buyers in the market, most of them from the United States and some from Asia, but their collecting habits are very wide-ranging and therefore less predictable than before.”

And Simon said that Old Masters are likely to continue to appeal to new and seasoned buyers alike: “With the established track record of the work of the Old Masters, many collectors find the confidence to put some of their assets into work they enjoy, with the assurance that if they wish to sell at some future time, they will likely reap some reward. One does not have to wait for an artist to be discovered and acclaimed if the artist’s work has been hanging on museum walls for centuries!”

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Victor Burgin’s ‘Photopath’ Unlocked Multi-Dimensionality in Photography 50 Years Ago. Now, the Work Is Resurfacing in New York

“A path along the floor, of proportions 1×21 units, photographed. Photographs printed to actual size of objects and prints attached to floor so that images are perfectly congruent with their objects.”

So read a set of simple, if ambiguous, instructions that Victor Burgin wrote on a single index card in 1967. When followed, the prompt yields a line of photographs that are exactingly printed to mimic the floor on which they’re installed—so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to miss them altogether. 

This was Photopath (1967-69), an era-defining work of mid-century photo-conceptualism that still mystifies today, even if—or, indeed, because—it leaves its viewers with more questions than answers. Photopath is the subject of both a new book and a show. The latter, a dedicated exhibition at Cristin Tierney Gallery that opens today, marks the first time in more than 50 years that the influential artwork will be installed in New York.

Victor Burgin, typed instruction for Photopath, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Burgin, now 81, wasn’t a photographer when he created Photopath 51 years ago. He didn’t own, or even really know how to use, a camera. What the technology represented to him was a means to an end—or, more accurately, the “solution to a problem,” he said in a recent interview.

The British-born artist was getting his graduate degree at Yale in the late ‘60s and was hyper-conscious, as many young artists are, of his place in the iterative evolution of artistic ideas and movements—that process where a generation of makers responds to the one that preceded it, and in doing so, establishes a new set of issues for the successive generation to take up. 

“We felt, back then, that our generation had to find the problem. Once you found the problem, then you knew what your artistic problem was; it was solving that,” Burgin said. 

On the artist’s mind were the slightly older mid-century minimalists—Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and his then-teacher at Yale, Robert Morris—whose formally rigorous work often resisted close examination and instead gestured outward, to the spaces in which it was installed. But Burgin was after something more elusive, something even non-material. 

“It struck me then that maybe I found the problem,” he said, recalling it in the form of a question: “What could I do in a gallery that would not add anything significant to the space yet would direct the viewer’s attention to [their] being there?” It was into this context that Photopath was born.

Victor Burgin, Photopath (1967-69), installation view, Nottingham, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

The artwork was one of several index cards that Burgin wrote after he had returned to the U.K. Creating instructions for hypothetical artworks satisfied his desire “to do away with the object” in his work, but the cards, too, felt unfulfilled; he needed to enact the prompts to complete them.

So he did. Photopath was first realized on the scarred wooden floor of a friend’s apartment in Nottingham in 1967, then again at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1969 and at the Guggenheim in 1971. 

Though the piece was conceived as a kind of sculpture—or an anti-sculpture, perhaps—its impact, in retrospect, feels emphatically photographic. Like few artworks before it, Photopath exploited the medium’s uncanny ability to nestle in between image and object, illusion and idea. If the artwork doesn’t compel its viewers to consider these ideas intellectually, it at least makes one feel them through interaction. Do you treat it like a sculpture or a picture? Or is it not an artwork at all and instead just another stretch of floor? Do you step on Photopath’s prints or walk around them? 

“It is hard to imagine an act of photography more straightforward and uncompromising than Photopath,” writer and curator David Campany explained in his recent book on the artwork and its legacy, published last October by MACK.

“It aims to fulfill the basic potential of the medium, which is to copy and to put itself forward as a stand-in or substitute. Yet,” Campany went on, “in meeting this expectation so literally, it somehow estranges itself.”

Victor Burgin with Francette Pacteau photographing the brick floor at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 1984. © Andrew Nairne / Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. Courtesy of Victor Burgin and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

To date, Photopath has only been installed a handful of times, the most recent instance of which came in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977” exhibition, when it was laid upon the polished wood boards of the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed atrium. After the run of the show, Burgin’s prints were discarded, leaving a dark, ghostly silhouette on the sun-soaked floor. He had, in a sense, created another type of photograph.

“I thought, ‘That’s just perfect.’ It really returns [the artwork] to the origin of photography,” Burgin said, noting that the show felt like a fitting conclusion for the artwork. He thought that would be the final time Photopath would be shown.

But that changed last year when Campany approached the artist with the idea of writing his short book about the artwork—a piece of writing that blends analytic art theory and personal experience, often to lyrical effect. What Campany identified in Burgin’s artwork was a kind of foresight for how photographic technology is used today. 

David Campany, Victor Burgin’s Photopath, 2022. Courtesy of MACK.

“[J]ust as Vermeer had pursued an important technical development in the picturing of three-dimensional space, so too had Burgin anticipated aspects of representation that are just as pervasive: the replication of surfaces, and the uncertain space between images and their mental impressions. Fake leaves on plastic plants. Laminated tabletops imitating stone or wood. Synthetic clothing pretending to be denim or leather.”

“Photographic ‘skins’ are everywhere in contemporary life,” Campany concluded. “They are not pictures, at least not in the conventional sense, but are a fact of our contemporary material, visual, and virtual experience.”

Victor Burgin: Photopath” is on view now through March 4, 2023 at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York. Victor Burgin’s Photopath by David Campany is available now through MACK.

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