A Warhol for Every Wall

28 02 2013
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Andy Warhol, ‘I love your kiss forever’ (image via onlineonly.christies.co

In what can best be described as the modern art-world equivalent of a garage sale, Christie’s is currently running an online auction of work by Andy Warhol (link to the catalogue… here).

As would be expected, Christie’s has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, and the very pretty micro-site features ‘Warholian Questionnaires’ with the usual suspects – ‘voice-of-her-generation’ poster-girl of the moment, Lena Dunham (creator, writer and star of Girls), Maxwell Ryan – founder of the Apartment Therapy website and author of the Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces and an online designer eyeglasses retailer.

Sounds like a hipster checklist. Warhol would have approved.

As for the art on offer, it’s an odd selection. The overwhelming impression is that they are clearing out the leftovers from the archive. Have a look yourself. Estimates for some works start at US$800, but many are likely to go a fair bit higher. At the time of writing, I love your kiss forever (pictured above) is up to US$26,000… (do you think it’s a coincidence that sounds like a Tracy Emin title? I think not). Lots of photos, but also some screenprints, a sculpture (yes – a can of Campbells chicken soup) and what are described as “paintings”. I use the quotation marks there because the six “paintings” are not what you would call typical. The auction runs till March 5.

Christie’s has formalised a relationship with the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the proceeds from this sale are to go towards the Foundation’s projects.

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The Art of Subterfuge

1 11 2012

ImageCould this be the moment we’ve all been anticipating? The art world equivalent of Toto drawing back the curtain to reveal the grey-haired little man pulling the Wizard of Oz’s levers? In the US, a seemingly unremarkable quibble over an unpaid auction bill has resulted in a much larger and portentous altercation over whether or not auction houses should be compelled to reveal their vendors.

The case is covered in detail by Terry Ingram in an article published on the Australian Art Sales Digest, and the implications are quite gob-smacking. It all came about because a buyer decided he no longer wished to cough up the cash to pay for a purchase he made at auction in Chester, New York. The saleroom, William J. Jenack, took the dealer to court and a ruling was made in Jenack’s favour and the buyer was ordered to pay the amount outstanding. But In a wickedly ingenious move, the buyer successfully appealed on the grounds that Jenack did not have the documents required to compel payment, namely a legally recognised contract that must, by definition, include the names of the seller and the buyer.

In an industry that thrives and survives thanks to the veils of secrecy that shroud transactions, this is an extraordinary finding. Any wonder that Christie’s is now fighting cheek-by-jowl with Jenack in an attempt to overturn the ruling. I’m sure it wouldn’t take too long for the biggest players to work out how to get around it, but if vendors’ identities were forcibly revealed to the market, it would certainly make practices like ramping and money-laundering more complicated.

Not to worry. This is all in its infancy, legally-speaking, and I have no doubt that, just like the good Wizard of Oz, Sotheby’s, Christie’s et al have a magical balloon stored out the back for use in such emergencies.

(Image: social-tribe.com)





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.





Oh, Deer. Haunch of Venison to close Berlin branch; Blain and Southern on the up and up

3 11 2010

Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you, but it appears that Christie’s grand venture into the wonderful world of retail contemporary art via its 2007 acquisition of Haunch of Venison has gone a wee bit sour. According to The Art Newspaper, the gallery is closing its Berlin branch which opened with much fanfare in 2007. Director Matt Carey-Williams attempts to turn the frown upside down, and constructs a marvellous example of art-world spin, saying “Berlin is one of the most energetic and exciting art cities, but it doesn’t have that community of collecting.” For that, read: “it’s not me, it’s you”; or: “Ich bin Berliner”, if by that you mean: “I like to look. Buy? Not so much”.

I attribute less credit for the contraction to Berlin’s reluctance to acquire Haunch’s pricey offerings than I do to Christie’s sudden and, in the light of the GFC, ill-timed proliferation of Haunches across the globe. But the principal cause is sure to be the defection of founding directors, Harry Blain and Graham Southern, who established the gallery and then sold it to Christie’s and remained in the business until June this year. It was almost inevitable that their move would gut the business, and that many of the gallery’s artists would leave with them. Following in their wake would be the moneyed collectors who form interdependent relationships with their favoured dealers. Sure enough, according to The Evening Standard, up to eleven of Haunch’s superstars have hitched their wagons to Blain and Southern’s gravy train, including Bill Viola, Rachel Howard and Anton Henning. Haunch has been working to fill the void with new recruits, amongst them Patricia Piccinini, who currently has a show running at the New York campus.

As for Blain and Southern, it appears that all is rosy in their particular corner of the art world. The dealers launched an eponymous gallery, Blain Southern, in London in October with an exhibition featuring new work by yBa alumni, Mat Collishaw, who also followed the dealers from Haunch when they jumped ship. The dealers also don’t appear to share Carey-Williams’ opinion about German art collectors’ frugality – they’ve announced plans to open a branch in Berlin in the near future. Blain is also keeping himself busy on the other side of the Atlantic, forming a partnership with former Sotheby’s vice chairman, Emmanuel Di Donna. Their gallery, Blain Di Donna, is going to begin trading in uptown New York in mid-November… Blains popping up all over. The Manhattan gallery will concentrate on selling Impressionist, Modern and second-hand contemporary works sourced in the secondary market. Blain Southern will focus on representing living artists. Interesting that the very savvy Blain has chosen to base his secondary market dealership in New York. Could that have anything to do with the fact that London charges sellers of second-hand artworks a resale royalty, whereas New York has yet to bring in this charge, making New York up to 4% more attractive as a place to sell secondary-market works of art?






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.

(image: http://www.aubreyallen.co.uk)





Art investment made easy, or, parking your loot in Picasso

6 05 2010

Picasso’s 1932 painting “Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust).Picasso made some pretty extraordinary works of art. Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur, 1932, pictured at left, is not one of them. But, proving the old maxim that money and taste aren’t always found hand in hand, the aforementioned painting set a new record price for an artwork sold at auction when the hammer fell at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday night. The going price? US$106.5 million. The sale just narrowly pipped the previous record holder, Giacometti’s Walking Man I, which sold for US$104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London earlier this year (both these prices include buyers’ fees). While I’m at it – as wonderful as Giacometti’s work is, I’d really love to know why his work in particular has been going through the roof of late. Who has the greatest vested interest in seeing his prices go up? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely interested in finding out. My inherent suspicion is always peaked when an artist’s market rallies in such a dramatic fashion, particularly when compared with the prices being paid at auction for equally well-regarded peers’ works of art.

But, back to Picasso. A price precedent has been set for large Picasso canvases for quite some time. Way back in the economic golden days of 2004, someone paid US$104.1 million for Boy with a Pipe, 1905 – in my opinion a far more powerful work than the latest record-breaker. For those fortunate people who managed to hold onto the odd pile of cash in the wake of the GFC, this means that a high-profile Picasso painting is a good place to park said cash while the stock market continues to buck and turn. With the economic and political situation in Europe looking ominous, it’s no surprise at all to find that secure material assets are finding favour amongst investors. Word is that much of this investment is coming from China.

The idea of art as material asset really took off in the post-war decades – in 1955, Fortune magazine declared art to be one of the most desirable international currencies. The art market as we know it today, particularly the auction trade, came into its own after then. Whereas previously auctions tended to be the purview of sombre and serious dealers and dedicated collectors, in the 1960s and beyond, they became social affairs as high society and the monied classes tussled over artworks that would bring them cachet and, if they were lucky, a secure way to invest a portion of their fortunes. No matter how unimpressed you are by Picasso’s market-topping painting, for whomever divested themselves of the equivalent of Greece’s national debt (ok – yes, an exaggeration) to acquire it can be pretty certain that their money is safe, as long as the art market status quo remains steady. And there are too many wealthy individuals and organisations heavily invested in said market for it to be undermined anytime soon.

And, as an aside, for anyone who questions why Christie’s closed its Australian branch and how Tim Goodman managed to secure what amounts to a Sotheby’s franchise Downunder, consider this – the price for the Picasso painting in Australian kangaroubles amounts to about $118 million. During the boom years 1999-2008, only once did the total… TOTAL … amount of art sold at auction in Australia exceed that amount. The approximate average for that ten year period was about A$90 million. In short? To say the Australian market is small change for the international auction leviathans is something of an understatement.

(image via nytimes.com)





Stolen Art: Should We Ever Let Bygones Be Bygones?

17 04 2009

Yves Saint Laurent's art collection is acutioned at Christie's in Paris.A few years ago I dropped in on an antiquities dealer I know from my time working in the auction trade. He’s great company, makes a killer coffee, and always has a new, thrilling, thoroughly engaging yet cringe-inducing story about his latest successful attempt to get his hands on a precious artwork or artefact of questionable provenance. To say that some of the things that have passed through his hands are of museum quality is an understatement.

For me, two particularly memorable pieces he showed me that day sum up the reality of the trade in antiquities. One was an exquisite, translucent marble Greek statue – relatively small, but perfect. I can’t be more specific than that because I have no desire to get anyone in trouble. Suffice to say that it was magnificent. It purportedly came to our dealer through the hands of an archaeologist who had excavated it on a small Aegean island and smuggled it out of Greece during the course of an official excavation. The second piece had been spirited illegally out of Iraq, just months after the Allies seized  Baghdad. It was an alabaster figurine of such beauty it brought tears to my eyes. 

As long as we continue to covet precious things and venerate objects of creative human endeavour, the trade in stolen art and artefacts will thrive. But the existence and focus of the trade raises some interesting questions. For example: China is threatening auction powerhouse, Christie’s, with “serious” consequences after the auction house refused to halt the sale of two 18th century bronze statues in its recent sale of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection (one is pictured above). The sale caused such uproar in China that even martial arts legend Jackie Chan felt compelled to weigh in on the matter. The statues were allegedly stolen in 1860 by British and French troops from the Imperial Summer Palace in Beiing during the Opium War. Given that China is being touted as the new frontier for the art trade, the government’s threat to restrict Christie’s presence in China is a serious one. But the whole situation made me ponder – would the outcome have been different if Christie’s or Sotheby’s had been offered a looted crest taken from the facade of Buckingham Palace, or Abraham’s foot stolen illegally from Lincoln’s Monument? Is this a case of double standards? 

War loot is nothing new. But that doesn’t make it right.

I’m sure there’s plenty of earlier examples, but Nebuchadnezzar and the treasure from Solomon’s Temple is the earliest example I can think of. In recent years, irreplaceable relics from the cradle of western civilisation, Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers otherwise known as Iraq – have been stolen and spread far and wide. The looting of Iraqi museums has been widely and rightly condemned. Yet on the other hand, the Elgin marbles, stolen from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, still retain pride of place in the British Museum. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. To put the latter example in context, it would be a bit like if Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling was ripped out and spirited off to a museum in Beijing. Or if the Eiffel Tower was dismantled, stuck on a container ship and taken away to a cultural centre in Dubai. How would we feel about that?

It’s all very well to entertain the idea of universal cultural heritage. Just make sure it cuts both ways.

Image:  ‘The Guardian’