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On the Block

Post #1088 • November 15, 2007, 10:37 AM • 28 Comments

Last week the Dow Jones corporation circulated a press release about a new art auction blog at the Wall Street Journal, On the Block.

For the next two weeks it will provide continuously updated news, images and analysis of the art auctions in New York. WSJ's Kelly Crow and Lauren Schuker are reporting from the auction floors, providing updates on the scene, the players and the numbers.

Like Artforum Diary drops names, OTB drops numbers.

A friend sitting next to Valentino [Garavani] - who was possibly bidding for the designer - unsuccessfully tried to buy another Warhol. The haunting 1986 work, "Self Portrait (Green Camouflage)," eventually sold to a telephone bidder for $12.3 million, just over its $9 million to $12 million estimate. Records were broken for 13 artists, including Koons, Sol LeWitt, John Chamberlain, Anish Kapoor, Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly.

But fabulosity turns AFD writers into unreflective thralls. Action on the auction floor does the opposite for Crow and Schuker. They could forego ascriptions like "haunting" because incidental criticism comes out of the reportage.

For the first time, Sotheby's wove Chinese contemporary art into its New York evening sale. All those works fared well: Fang Lijun's partly cloudy portrait of several men dressed in angelic (or perhaps mournful) white sold to a phone bidder for $4 million, nearly four times its high estimate. After breaking the record for Yue Minjun in London last month, Sotheby’s sold the artist's "Bayonetting" for $1.1 million, near its $1.2 million high estimate. (It may have helped that Mr. Yue's grinning self portraits are on exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art in New York.)

Critics, who as art people tend toward innumeracy, lament the frenzy of the art market and worry that it will enervate artistic progress. (Examples abound. Here's one.) OTB takes the opposite approach, viewing the sums as a fact of life. This robs them of power. They could plummet as well as rocket, and only the fall of the gavel stays the uncertainty. Nothing proves the arbitrariness of the whole exercise quite like the data themselves. $1.1 million for a one-trick pony like Yue Minjun? $700K as the low estimate for a tossed-off Warhol Mao? This probably strikes someone as good news or bad news. I instead recall a few lines from the Hua Hu Ching:

If you do not see the patterns in these movements, you are lost. But if you consult the I Ching with an open mind, you will begin to see the patterns underlying all things. Knowing that daybreak will come, you can sleep peacefully at night.




November 15, 2007, 11:53 AM

"Haunting"? Well, it's certainly disturbing, or at least it would be if it weren't so commonplace (the going price for such work, I mean). But yes, when something like that Warhol sells for that much, some sort of vague justification may be the charitable thing to say, for the sake of those idiotic enough to bite on it.



November 15, 2007, 12:41 PM

You link to Saltz who asks if money is ruining art, but he is as eyeless and corrupted as the rest and though he certainly is qualified to write about the art scene you only have to note what he likes to realize that he has little idea of what is good art or even what is good about art altogether.

If you check out the recent auctions on you will quickly see that 700k or a million is becoming small potatoes. Anything with a name attached to it is a million now; I saw a Richard Prince painting that would disqualify him from admission to my MFA program, at least, an incompetent pastische which went for 6+ million. That Koons heart sold for 20-some million. Warhols routinely go for many millions despite coming up for auction by the dozens, literally. Saltz mentions that Marlene Dumas, another painter who simply cannot paint and has no conpensating catchy quirks, even, will have a show at the Modern. The Met has the shark. The tchotchke/trophy crowd has the power of enormous amounts of money and absolute money corrupts absolutely.

But all this stops no one from trying to make better art, and there is something to the all-boats-rising theory. There is a lot of sorting-out going on, good art from the recent past getting more attention and once in a while some decent auction prices. It's a little like the mammals and the dinosaurs; the next economic crisis may be like the great meteorite that wiped out the big lizards and allowed the scurrying, more adaptable little critters to evolve. We'll see.

In the meantime, well, it's interesting, anyway.



November 15, 2007, 4:21 PM

OP, I feel it's my duty to inform you that some very major collectors in our very major art city of Miami are apparently very proud of having gotten in on the ground floor, so to speak, with Richard Prince years ago. I wouldn't want you to say something gauche at some art gathering or other and wind up looking dangerously out-of-it.

You realize, of course, these major people can line up curators (including their own, obviously) from here till Christmas (at least) to validate their, uh, prescience. You can quote Greenberg till the cows come home, but it won't get you anywhere with the right crowd. I mean right now.



November 15, 2007, 4:25 PM

Oh, and that Koons heart thingie is just darling. So shiny and upscale-looking, and the color is to die for (I'm sure it will inspire some cosmetics line or other). And the pretty ribbons, too...well, what's not to like? It's a steal.



November 15, 2007, 5:17 PM

It's a steal, all right.

In reverse.


A. Virgin

November 15, 2007, 6:56 PM

I am curious as to your opinion of the latest manipulations of artist/dealer buying their "own" pieces at inflated prices, fixing the market for that artist, if you will.



November 15, 2007, 8:20 PM

Yeah, that's what Gagosian did with the Koons diamond, I think it was.

It only makes them look bad, and it is not illegal. The auction house won't do anything about it because they make money.



November 16, 2007, 10:05 AM


I think galleries like Gagosian who try to shamefully prop up artist auction prices artificially only fail in the end because it is so very transparent to the collecting community. Collectors are becoming much more discriminating on who and what they are going to spend millions of dollars on at auction; they only want the best of the artist work at the right price. These type of actions by the galleries only make the artist more of a risk especially socialites artist like koons who auction prices have been in the past a bit of a rollercoaster.


ekim skram

November 16, 2007, 10:07 AM

Art fixing has been in since the invention of the printing system and the marketing skill of Curry and Ives.
The auction block has just gone public. The ugly attempt to maintain growth projections. IPO of sorts.
It only matters if you care. You probably only care, because you can't be apart of it or you need something to wine about. As far as Warhola goes demand does to the market what demand does to the market. Hell look at Jeff Koons, his work is geard toward the mass appeal and thus it is accessible to the geniuses and generates demand. Like Mickey Mouse statuary does.



November 16, 2007, 10:15 AM

@ Ekim: Autoresponse: Jealousy


Marc Country

November 16, 2007, 10:17 AM

Mmm... curry.


Marc Country

November 16, 2007, 10:18 AM

Mmm... wine.


Marc Country

November 16, 2007, 10:19 AM

Sorry, Franklin. I haven't had breakfast yet, and ekim's typos are making me hungarian.


A. Virgin

November 16, 2007, 10:30 AM

How is it that Gagosian and kind are above investigation when Christies, Sotheby's experience scrutiny?



November 16, 2007, 10:41 AM

RL if you think those rich collectors are "discriminating" go to and look at what they paid zillions for this week.

Marc, once again, LOL.


Chris Rywalt

November 16, 2007, 11:12 AM

Franklin: Your autoresponse is amusing, but I think this time it might be misplaced. It sounds to me that yekim-ekim means "one only cares if one cannot be a part of it," not "YOU, Franklin (or OP or any other specific person), only cares because YOU cannot be a part of it, you whiny loser."

Which statement is probably true for a lot of us. I doubt if someone were selling our Koons for us that we'd tell Sotheby's to please, give the millions back, the piece clearly isn't worth it. (Then again, most of us here probably wouldn't have given the piece houseroom in the first place, not even if it was free with a box of Cracker Jacks.)



November 16, 2007, 11:38 AM

What on earth do Currier & Ives, makers of inexpensive decorative prints clearly aimed at a mass/popular market, have to do with the matter under discussion, regardless of their degree of marketing skill? Never mind. I shouldn't have.


A. Virgin

November 16, 2007, 12:02 PM

I wish you fellows would not "attack" each other. I sincerely ask my questions in order to "self educate." I wish to be informed by those as passionate as yourselves.


Chris Rywalt

November 16, 2007, 12:22 PM

AV: Let me try and enlighten you as much as I can. I'm not an expert on the art world or the art market, but I've picked up a few things.

Auctions and auction houses, like Sotheby's and Christie's, are governed by rules and regulations and laws. But the art market as a whole is entirely unregulated. And anything unregulated is entirely opaque. So no one really knows for sure what's going on in the art market the way they do, for example, the stock market -- insider trading is common, as are pretty much any activity that's been made illegal in other more transparent markets.

That's why Gagosian is "above" investigation: There's nothing to investigate. An intrepid journalist, I guess, could uncover quite a lot of shenanigans, but, really, the art world is small potatoes and not worth getting that upset over.


A. Virgin

November 16, 2007, 12:32 PM

Thankyou Chris. I assure you I am not upset. Mystified , yes. Do you see such "investigation/scrutiny on the horizon? I would think the Feds want the tax action.


Chris Rywalt

November 16, 2007, 12:51 PM

It's not you that shouldn't get upset, it's everyone, like newspaper reporters. No one really cares about the art world except art world people, which is probably why they're able to do whatever they want as long as they declare their taxable income. Some people would certainly get upset and investigate if really large sums of money or power were involved, but in the end it's not that much. Of course, culturally art's important, but day to day it's hard to think of it that way -- unless you're an art world person.

I don't personally imagine anyone will ever scrutinize the art market too closely, but I'm mostly ignorant, so my opinion isn't worth a whole lot. I suppose I could become the intrepid reporter uncovering all the art world scandals, but I'm probably too lazy.


A. Virgin

November 16, 2007, 1:37 PM

I wonder what the total of all art that has exchanged hands globally this year alone totals. 1 billion plus, I hazard to guess.



November 16, 2007, 1:44 PM


What I meant by discriminating was that collectors will not buy everything just certain items at auction.

Some collectors are discriminating but most do it without a great deal of knowledge of art and many collectors in this market its not necessarily about buying good art its about the trends, buying and owning of status and future resale. I guess we should be grateful they have made the art market so much a successful and very profitable for so many galleries/artists. Now let us all go out and spend all of the money we have made as artist in this market HURRAY! (BTW I was being facetious).

An artwork is not worth much monetarily until someone wants to buy it even if it is the gallery that represents that artist want to buy it at auction. Good luck to that gallery owner that now has to go and sell the work they just bought at that auction and still make a profit. I suppose that Gagosian will find a new buyer that simple loves the diamond and cannot live without it for their collection and he still will make gobs money for it.



November 16, 2007, 5:10 PM

RL if by "discriminating" you mean choosing one thing rather than another, then they are discriminating. If by "discriminating" you mean carefully assessing differences in quality then they are not discriminating.

There has never been a circumstance like this on in the art business, one in which objects of no discernable value of any kind except for their identifiability as trophies are traded for sums which might purchase a thriving business, or a small town.

There are examples in history - Tulipmania in 17th C Holland and the South Sea Bubble of 18th C England, but even these, as extreme as they were, did not approach the relative size of the sums being exchanged now.

I'm not complaining, as Ekim might allege. There was a time when I sold everything I painted and had all the perqs that went with it and I still carried on about the art business. But when this thing crashes it will be catastrophic; it may give all art a bad name as investment. It is worrisome.



November 16, 2007, 6:40 PM

Chris you are right #21 I agree

"No one really cares about the art world except art world people, which is probably why they're able to do whatever they want as long as they declare their taxable income. "

Americans in general don't care about art -OHH don't get me going on this subject it is so obvious as to why Americans don't care and I don't have the energy.

America has marginalized art to the point of Status and Fame and very little else making it very superficial. I was always told that art should reflect the time and place it is from well it does here in America.


don't worry
One good thing if the market crashes and it would dump at least some the art posers and status buyers (you know the ones that are here in Miami in December you can tell them because they wear the dark rimmed glasses a very intellectual look.)

foregive me It seems am in a very cynical mood today.


A. Virgin

November 16, 2007, 7:29 PM

RL-"status and fame"=money! I have clarity. So simple. So fashionable. Thankyou all.


ekim skram

November 16, 2007, 8:02 PM

Thanks, Specifically toward Chris. I should have considered the personal filters no matter how disturbed.

Fr. you spent too much time considering what you should do about me. I have reviewed your work and given due diligence regarding myresearching you. I do not intend any judgment of your work outside of this virtual dialogue. All of my comments have been and are specifically for this realm.
I don't know you outside of this place and fortunately I wouldn’t judge, the real you, based on this vague difficult correspondence.


ekim skram

November 16, 2007, 8:28 PM

Op, Please refer to Chris, I have sent him a retainer. I did not address you or allege anything.

Regarding this being a bubble. I think the analogy is poor. It may be considered a drunken party that may end until another party begins. Much like the what happened in the late 80's art scene. The party only ends when money becomes less available. Not happening.
But all of this art that is being "overpaid" for as some of you assert will not suddenly show up on the market if demand for it diminishes. As if in the hopes of covering "art short calls" and margin buys.
I suspect many find lower returns on living and working artist work, those who demand large amounts, than one could make on other speculative markets. So the market has a speculative side but less so that its potential tax break function. Gifting with added value.
I don't know who you all are, but I am sure some of you have traded work with a fellow artist and then gifted it to an interested collection for a hefty tax write off....No?
If you want to attack. Have at it, show your ass. Me, I am off to an showing at some pathetic venue, I think it is a hair salon. Very bad? or Very far outside.



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