One Moore questionable artwork withdrawn from auction.

9 02 2011

Oh, those puns just write themselves. In an article published in today’s Age, ‘Auction house fears sculpture may be less than a Moore’ (see what I mean?), Gabriella Coslovich reveals that a sculpture listed in Mossgreen’s latest catalogue as a work by acclaimed British sculptor, Henry Moore, may not be all that it seems. The image here, taken from The Age, shows the more Moore sculpture at left, and the less Moore sculpture on the right. Don’t worry. I’ll stop now.

Mossgreen is dispersing Melbourne-based painter Robert Doble’s collection of art, artefacts and ephemera on February 21. The sculpture formerly known as ‘Mother and Child‘, and now most likely referred to by Mossgreen staff as “that #*!*%!# piece of $#!*” was to have been the highlight of what is a very eclectic collection (have a peek at the online catalogue here). It has now been withdrawn from sale after revelations from an interested buyer that it may be a forgery. Coslovich refers to an article published in 1993 in The Independent that quotes the Henry Moore Foundation, which administers the artist’s estate; Julie Summers, deputy curator of the Foundation, says of the flood of Moore forgeries on the market: “It’s terrifying”.

Unfortunately for Robert Doble, mother-and-child compositions are the most often faked. The telltale signs of a forgery that’s been cast from an original work? The base on a forgery will be cast with the sculpture, whereas with the original, the sculpture will be attached separately to the base. Also, as the casting process causes the bronze to shrink during cooling, the forgery will be slightly smaller.

The biggest concern with this for the art world in general? These works continue to circulate. Robert Doble has indicated that he intends to give it to a friend as a 50th birthday gift. Although it’s unlikely to find its way back onto the market anytime soon, what about in ten or fifteen years or so, when all the fuss has died down? When I was at Leonard Joel, I once saw the wonderful Treena Joel (granddaughter of Leonard) write ‘FAKE’ across the back of a canvas that had been submitted for sale at Joel’s, and categorically proven to be a fake or forgery. Although I’m fairly sure that defacing someone else’s property like that could get you in trouble, I appreciate the sentiment.

In France, authorities are permitted to remove signatures from fake works of art. Here? Most of the time, they end up back in private hands only to resurface on the market in the future. That’s why I toasted the incineration of the notorious Blackman and Dickerson forgeries last year. Burn them. Burn them all!

(Image: ‘The Age’ online)


Back to the Future. New York sales a hint of things to come?

5 11 2010

In constrained economic times, it would be unsurprising to see art buyers swinging their attention to established artists from days of yore. Sure enough, in the latest series of fine art auctions held in New York, some surprising prices were realised for work by artists who were out of favour during the boom. Particularly notable was the sale of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses, 1904 (pictured above). The painting was offered for sale with a pre-auction high-end estimate of US$5 million, and a flurry of bidding quickly pushed the price to $35.9 million, including buyer’s premium. The first session of Sotheby’s auction of 19th century European art realised a healthy $61.5 million and by my reckoning, based on Sotheby’s published results, they sold a healthy 75% or so of the lots on offer.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modernist auction results from 3 November are equally impressive, with a sale total of just under US$231.5 million, and a clearance rate of 80% of the lots on offer. A new record price was set for Henri Matisse for the monumental bronze Nu de dos, 4 état, acquired by über dealer Larry Gagosian on behalf of a private client (in the New York Times, Carol Vogel hints the monied collector in question may be hedge fund billionaire, Steven A. Cohen). The hunger for works by Italian sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, remains unsated, with Femme de Venise V selling for $10,274,500 to a private buyer. An important 1913 cubist painting by Juan Gris, Violon et Guitare, also set a new auction record for that artist when it sold for over $28.6 million to a private European collector. In its press release, Christie’s Americas Chair, Marc Porter, credits the success of the sale to “deep bidding from a diverse group of collectors representing North and South America, Europe and Asia.”

When Sotheby’s goes to auction on 23 November in Sydney, with an estimated sale range of A$3,879,000-5,292,000 and featured lots by artists Rupert Bunny, John Peter Russell, Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, the powers-that-be will undoubtedly have their collective fingers crossed that the trend back towards traditional and modernist masters has translated to the Antipodes. And, with 20 of the 94 lots on offer by sculptor Robert Klippel, let’s hope bronzes are all the rage here as well.

Hurty Art Market Fact #4: Contrary to popular belief, art does not always go up in value.

29 10 2010

Prompted by a comment left by Megan (another Megan – not ‘Meaghan’ me – too many Meaghans spoil the broth) on an earlier post, I decided to undertake a little exercise to test whether her very generous assessment of my prophetic skills was on the money, so to speak. Because, as much as I’m delighted to accept random and baseless compliments, I do like to test whether said flattery is justified.

One of the many things I looked at in my PhD was repeat sales of artworks at auction, to determine price movements for particular artists. It was fun. What can I say? I have a strange attraction to Excel spreadsheets and formulae – something my year 12 mathematics teacher would likely find surprising. Nowadays, I still keep a close eye on the things that pass through auction in Australia, and my ongoing research interest is in tracking and documenting the crazy alchemy that turns art into money. One of my conclusions is that there is absolutely no guarantee that a work of art bought at auction will rise in value, and sudden and rather dramatic drops in price are not at all uncommon. In the case of an artwork acquired from a commercial gallery, the likelihood of it increasing in value is minute.

But back to Megan’s assessment. I decided it was high time I revisited some of my old friends – artists whose prices skyrocketed during the art market boom that ran from 1998/9 to 2007. Below is a chart that shows a few repeat sales of the same artworks by some of the boom’s biggest hitters. To explain the figures – I started with the hammer price plus premium, which is presumably the total price paid by a buyer to the auction house for that painting. Then, I adjusted that amount, compounding annually, to account for inflation, working out the adjusted value of the original purchase price for the year in which the painting next appeared at auction. Next, I estimated the net amount that went to the seller at the second auction appearance. This amount is the hammer price, less an estimated 15% seller’s commission. I then worked out the difference between the adjusted purchase price and the net amount that went to the seller. Using the first example from the chart to explain this further, somebody paid a total of $2,040,000 for Brack’s Backs and Fronts in 2007. When that person sold it in 2010, they netted $1,530,000. Once you take into account the effect of inflation on the 2007 purchase price, this amounts to an adjusted, real loss of $774,968. Ouch. In the case of the John Olsen painting, The Afternoon Walk, it was resold three times between 2003 and 2009, registering a significant loss each time. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Oh, all these sales took place at one or more of the Menzies branches.

Yes, we are in the midst of a global financial maelstrom. Yes, under those conditions we would expect to see the value of many investments fall, particularly those that were acquired at the height of the boom. Still… Ouch!

High-risk occupations: Tightrope walker. Stunt driver. Art valuer.

12 08 2010

During the course of a discussion over a lovely long lunch at Cicciolina in St Kilda yesterday with one of my favourite art-world people, it occurred to me that the shape of the industry as we know it is set to undergo some pretty major changes.

What set me off was my dining companion’s announcement that she is no longer going to produce written valuations of artworks. Her not at all unreasonable decision is a response to the legal ramifications of Justice Vickery’s findings in the recent case against Peter Gant. Although the media hype around the case focussed on the prevalence of fakes and forgeries in the Australian art market, for the industry the issue of greatest immediate concern is a precedent that seems to place much greater levels of legal responsibility in the hands of those who value art.

It goes a little something like this – Peter Gant supplied a valuation for three artworks by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson. The authenticity of these artworks was challenged by the artists, and Blackman and Dickerson took action against Gant, claiming he had breached section 9 of the Fair Trading Act, which holds that: ‘A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive’ (the case is very nicely summarised in a recent article in Art + Law by Moira C. McKenzie).

Gant stated in court that he had produced the written valuations in good faith, without any intent to deceive or mislead, and that his attribution of the works to the hands of those artists was made as a matter of expert opinion. Justice Vickery found that the intent of Gant as valuer was irrelevant, but that: ‘it is open to conclude that the valuations also contained an implicit representation of fact that each of the works in contention were authentic works, each having been created by one of the Plaintiffs.’ Most ominously for all valuers of Australian art, Justice Vickery also found that it mattered little whether or not Gant knew that the works he was selling were fakes; he deemed the misattribution and sale of the works to be ‘serious’ breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

My dining companion, who shall remain anonymous, has determined that the risk to her business and reputation is too great. Because, no matter how wise we are after the event and how many of us marvel at how on earth anyone could possibly ever have imagined that something proven to be a forgery or fake was ever authentic, the reality is that a huge number of dodgy artworks are circulating in the marketplace unnoticed. How many other art valuers are going to decide that the legal and financial risks associated with endorsing the authorship of a fake/forgery by providing a valuation are too great?


Joining the Dots: The Sustainability of the Aboriginal Art Market

8 07 2010

Yes – things have been busy. Very busy. Exhaustion and sleeplessness have kicked in. But no fungus infections as yet, I’m happy to say (note to the repulsed – I’m referencing Roy Lichtenstein at left).

(Image: Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Takka Takka’, via

On top of the symposium I’m co-convening at the University of Melbourne next week, with speeches by the Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, 2010 Archibald and Wynne winner Sam Leach, and other venerable members of the visual art community, I’ve also been writing an article, ‘Joining the dots: analysing the sustainability of the Australian Aboriginal art market’, for publication in UNESCO’s humanities journal, Diogenes. Yes, I know. Enough of the self-serving plugs, already. But at the moment I’m so busy I don’t have anything else for you.

So here’s the pre-publication version of the paper, which looks at the sustainability of the Aboriginal art market using empirical evidence drawn from auction figures. My conclusion is that Aboriginal art, rightly or wrongly, is treated by the market as anthropological, rather than fine, art, and that this has implications for the mid- to long-term sustainability of the market. There are charts, tables and everything.

Please note, it’s the pre-publication form, and will be edited and formatted differently when it appears in Diogenes. It’s also a necessarily ponderous academic piece of writing. And long. (I’m a good salesman, aren’t I?) But there are some interesting bits and pieces in there that should be useful. I hope. It’s a formal version of a paper I delivered at the 2009 Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference, and it attracted a fair bit of interest from a number of luminaries at said event. Then again, perhaps they were just being polite.

Anyways, here it is – the abstract first, to whet your appetite, and the rest of the article after the jump. Please take heed of the requisite copyright notice from Diogenes and Sage Publications. Because this is all original research put together by me and to be published exclusively in their lovely publication. And if you copy any of it and use it without requisite acknowledgment, they’ll have your proverbial guts for garters.


“This paper has been accepted for publication in Diogenes and the final (edited, revised and typeset) version of this paper will be published in Diogenes Vol/Issue, Month/2010 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © ICPHS. For more information please visit: .”


Joining the dots: analysing the sustainability of the Australian Aboriginal art market


Sotheby’s estimates between fifty and seventy percent of the Aboriginal art it sells at auction is bought by international collectors. How do those buyers view their acquistions? On the Sotheby’s website, you will not find Aboriginal art listed with ‘Australian’ and ‘Contemporary Art’ under the ‘Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture’ department. Rather, it is classified as one of the ‘Ancient and Ethnographic Arts’, alongside ‘Antiquities’ and ‘Pre-Columbian Art’.

This paper will show that the promotion and perception of Aboriginal art as ethnographic rather than contemporary in nature is but one of a number of important aspects of the market that have implications for the industry’s long-term sustainability. This distinction has a significant effect on the way Aboriginal art is distributed, promoted and received by buyers and sellers. Collectors measure the value of ethnographic material by assessing its proximity to a culturally immaculate source. An object has the greatest ethnographic integrity if it emanates from a primitive, isolated community.

Author’s biography:

Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios is a researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include art price formation and how and why economic superstars emerge in the auction market. Part of her research was the focus of a Four Corners program, Art for Art’s Sake, aired on ABC television. Meaghan co-authored a paper with Professor Neil de Marchi of Duke University for the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art: ‘The impact of unscrupulous dealers on sustainability in the Australian Aboriginal desert paintings market’. She is a registered art valuer and has seventeen years’ art-industry experience in public and commercial art institutions. Read the rest of this entry »

Haunch of Venison Sautéed and Stuffed? Founding Directors of Christie’s Commercial Gallery Venture Head for Greener Pastures.

4 06 2010

Much to the annoyance of contemporary art dealers everywhere, in 2007 auction leviathan Christie’s acquired the suitably obscurely-named London gallery, Haunch of Venison (in answer to the inevitable question, it was so named because the building in which it first took up residence is located in the wonderfully named, ‘Haunch of Venison Yard’). The gallery was launched in 2002 under the tender ministrations of  Harry Blain and Graham Southern, who was head of Christie’s contemporary art department in London until 2001, and established in the premises formerly occupied by retired über-dealer, Anthony d’Offay. Its sale to Christie’s caused no end of consternation amongst dealers, because in the then-buoyant marketplace of the mid-ish ‘naughties, there seemed to be a considerable potential for conflict of interest in a circumstance where an auction house that was aggressively promoting its contemporary art auctions also owned a large commercial contemporary art business. How would Christie’s manage to maintain a disinterested outlook if, for example, it was selling a major work by one of the artists represented by its commercial gallery?

So Haunch of Venison flourished and expanded. It now has premises in Manhattan, Zürich and Berlin, in addition to the London gallery, and represents a stable of commercially stable artists including Dan Flavin, Bill Viola and James Rosenquist, and the requisite headline-grabbing enfant-terribles, including yBa alumni Mat Collishaw, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (who, quite coincidentally, featured in my last post about his latest installation in Melbourne’s Fed Square). The current exhibition at Haunch of Venison’s Berlin campus is a collaboration between Michael Joo and Damien Hirst, featuring a couple of Hirst’s emblematic sectioned and formaldehyde-sodden beasties, a pill cabinet, a fly painting, and one of his super-sized human anatomical models.

But could Christie’s great pipe-dream be coming to an end? The Wall Street Journal has reported that, as of 31 August this year, Blain and Southern will be leaving Haunch of Venison to “pursue new projects”. Although there is much brave talk of future directions and evolution, in the world of commercial art dealers, cachet and power resides in the hands of individuals rather than institutions. Personal relationships with artists and collectors are paramount, and the simultaneous departure of Blain and Southern is sure to carve quite a chunk out of the Haunch’s client base.


The great art laundromat?

11 05 2010

If you have ever stopped to wonder why it is that such extraordinary sums of money pass through the fine art market, consider this: what other market in material goods is essentially unregulated, and allows tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars to be exchanged without scrutiny? Participants in art market transactions are protected by the cast-iron wall of secrecy that shields exchanges from public and official view. There is no mechanism in place that allows regulators to determine when suspicious transactions may be taking place.

The dearth of laws or regulations moderating the buying and selling of art would be very appealing to big investors who have reason to channel large sums of money from one source to another, then back again. Also aiding those who desire to clean up their cash by passing it through a nice, sudsy art market bath, is the perception that works of art, being unique, are difficult to value. So an apparently inexplicably high or low price for an artwork at auction can be justified by saying that it was under- or overvalued prior to the sale, and that the level of demand was under- or overestimated.

Mmm. Sudsy.

(Image via: