untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

Hurty art market fact #3

OK. Enough with the silly, non-art diversions for now.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario.

You bid at auction for an apartment in a block of ten. There’s some to-and-fro, argy-bargy and a bit of tussling with one other bidder. But they drop out, the hammer falls, and you are the lucky winner. Yippee! Whoopee!

You move into your new property. All’s well with the world. Then, one day, you’re standing at your new front door, excavating your bag trying to find your keys (stapler? affirmative. tape measure? affirmative. toenail clipper? affirmative. keys? negative, captain). You see a familiar face peering at you from an adjacent apartment. Not one of the neighbours – you’ve met them all already. Ah, yes. It’s the underbidder from the auction.

Well, whaddya know? You smile and strike up a conversation: “So, trying to get someone to sell up? Better luck next time. No hard feelings, eh?”

Comments met with an uncomfortable smile. “Ah, no. I’m an agent. My client owns six of the apartments already. Guess you’d call him a landlord”. “Oh, wanted to buy another, did he?”. An even more uncomfortable smile. “No. I was bidding under his instructions to make sure his apartments weren’t devalued. Would have bought it if necessary, but as it turned out, it wasn’t”.

You: “So you’re saying I paid as much as I did for this place just because he didn’t want his apartments devalued?”. Uncomfortable silence. “Yeah. Guess so.”

How would you feel? Would this constitute fair use of the auction system?

Now, replace ‘apartment’ with ‘artwork’. And replace rival bidder/landlord with art dealer. This happens. Regularly. Well, clearly without the keys, toenail clippers etc. It’s a practice I describe as ‘buffering’ in my thesis.

Dealers can, and some do, act to ensure their artists’ work sells for a reasonable price if it appears at auction. This involves bidding for works at auction and, where necessary, buying works back rather than have them sell at prices that reflect poorly on their artists’ gallery prices. The industry condones this practice because it seems to protect artists’ best interest.

Influential New York dealer, Betty Parsons, said: “if a dealer has one of his artist’s paintings up for auction and he’s afraid the price will drop, then he’ll go and protect its value by buying it back. I’ve done that, and so has every dealer.”*

Artists’ rights and interests must be defended vigourously. But is the auction market, which needs to operate as an open competitive forum if it is to be efficient, the place to do it? Should exceptions be made for art that would never be tolerated in the property market?

Something to think about, anyway.


*This quote is from a brilliant book by Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones called The art dealers (publ. Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1984). Highly recommend it.

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