Are the days of the artrepreneur numbered?

8 02 2013

Image via

Interesting question arrived in my inbox today via Michael Mocksim. “You think the Frank Dunphy style era is over?”

Frank Dunphy, of course, was Damien Hirst’s manager – of sorts. According to his entry on the always reliable Wikipedia (note – tongue wedged firmly in cheek there) Dunphy is a ‘business manager, accountant and entrepreneur’. His coup de grâce was organising Hirst’s ‘straight to auction’ sale of new artworks at Sotheby’s in 2008 – the so-called ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever‘.  $200 million worth of art sold over two days. Not bad. Not bad at all.

No idea what commission rate Sotheby’s gave him. It’s not unheard of for the big auction houses to give clients 0% commission – they may have been happy to make do with the buyers’ premium they raked in on the day. A single vendor and the associated massively reduced costs in admin and customer service that come with it, not to mention the avalanche of publicity the event generated for the auction house? I’d do it for 0% from the vendor and 20% or so from the buyers. Yep. Not too shabby. So, let’s be generous and presume a 0% commission rate for Mr. Hirst. That means 10% of total sales to Frank Dunphy. 10% of $200 million. Yeah. Them’s big biscuits.

So, have we seen the last of the Dunphy-esque art entrepreneurial management style? I believe that people like Frank Dunphy appear on the scene when a market is being driven by speculative bubbles, regardless of the industry. Then they retreat once the bubbles start bursting – or are sidelined by the same people who were happy to exploit their entrepreneurial talents while things were going well. But when the cash stops flowing in? Why pay a sizeable percentage of your hard-earned dollars to someone who no longer manifests the alchemical gifts he or she seemed to harness during the boom-time.

The smell of money brings them out of the woodwork. Don’t worry. They’ll be back.


Dreaming of the future in Aboriginal art

2 11 2012

For your delectation, below is the opening passage to an article I wrote for Australian Art Sales Digest, and a link to the full thing if you’re interested. Enjoy. 

There’s no avoiding the fact that the auction trade in Aboriginal art is not looking great. A clearance rate of 48% is pretty bleak news in anyone’s language. Predictably, Sotheby’s October auction of Important Aboriginal Art generated another round of lamentation about the parlous state of the market. But how does it stack up against the market as a whole? Are things as bad as they seem?Read more at Australian Art Sales Digest 

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.


“I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them”: MONA launch, 21 Jan 2011

10 11 2010

Being the jaded creature that I can sometimes be, I was pleasantly surprised by the child-like excitement that accompanied the arrival of my invitation to the launch party for the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. First up, it was seriously large and weighty – there’s something about 5mm thick matt black card, silver foil printing and a tumble of inclusions that lends an invitation serious gravitas. But, most of all, I’ve been looking forward to this for yonks.

David Walsh has been constructing a monumental home for his idiosyncratic collection on the shores of the Derwent River for a number of years now. I’ve had the occasional update via former auction world colleagues, Mark Fraser and Jane Clark, both ex-Sotheby’s (and NGV in Jane’s case) and both of whom now work with Walsh at MONA as Director and Curatorial Consultant respectively. Walsh has made a bundle of money as a professional gambler, although I doubt you’d see him out at Moonee Valley for the Friday night trots. Rather, he’s a mathematical genius who’s put his talents to good use by writing complex logarithms that enable him to work the odds in his favour. If this 2007 profile by Gabriella Coslovich is to be believed, he’s an intriguing character. Either way, he is sinking a fair chunk of his earnings into the purchase of major works of art that will be available for the Australian public to view for free. A decent bucketload of gazillions has also gone into the construction of the Nonda Katsalidis edifice.

Walsh is deliberately courting controversy and wants nothing more than to shake up the Australian art world. From what I understand, he is displaying his collection in a manner that he hopes will cause outrage amongst curators and curious onlookers alike. Museum and art world professionals will be horrified with the technical aspects of his installation, and squeamish visitors will be shocked by the explicit and fecal nature of some of the art on display. A centrepiece of his collection is yBa alumni Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, arguably the most contentious work of art produced in recent decades. Ofili’s elephant dung and labia bedazzled icon featured in Charles Saatchi’s notorious exhibition, Sensation. The tempest of religious fury that Ofili’s painting caused when exhibited at Brooklyn’s Museum of Art as part of Sensation‘s grand world tour led to the cancellation of the show’s scheduled appearance at the National Gallery of Australia in 2000. Although topping the list in the ‘ewww’ stakes for me will be Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a room-sized installation that takes in food at one end, ‘digests’ it, and pops it out the other end as disturbingly convincing fecal effluent, authentic aroma and all (as an aside, have a look at Wim Delvoye’s fantastic website – don’t worry – it’s completely SFW. Really).

Walsh’s desire to shock and court scandal, and to knock the legs out from under some of the art world’s most venerated cows might seem a little puerile. But why should that matter? Walsh’s message couldn’t be clearer: MONA is his playpen. If you don’t like the rules, you can pack up your bat and ball and go home. The text within the illustrated booklet that accompanied my invitation to the launch runs as follows: “I bought some ancient art…It was getting a bit mouldy…I built a little gallery…I let people have a look…I bought some newer art…Some people made some art for me…I built a bigger gallery…I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them.” When Jane Clark spoke at Melbourne University earlier in the year, she quoted Walsh:  ‘MONA is my soapbox … and the best lounge room money can buy’. And that’s why I’m excited. One of my favourite museums in the world is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (pictured). Soane was an architect and inveterate collector. His residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been a public museum since his death in the early 19th century. It’s an extraordinary space, and one in which the connection between the collector and his collection couldn’t be clearer.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to understand a collection unless we’re given some insight into the person, or people, who formed it. Somebody, somewhere, chose an object and placed it within a collection for a reason. The modern model of the public museum can be misleading in that sense. The white walls and apparently impersonal modes of presentation encourage us to see museums as remote temples of high art. But those white walls hide a maelstrom of human activity, and I’ve had enough to do with public art organisations to know that individual personalities have a great deal to do with the formation of public collections. One example of many – the former curator of a major Australian public collection who told me of the time he was told by a former director in very clear terms that he was not to make acquisitions from a particular dealer because the dealer had slighted the director. That ban remained in place for years. Consider what that might have meant for the art that did and, importantly, did not end up on the gallery’s walls. Not to mention the relevance of this situation for those artists whose work didn’t enter the gallery’s collection as a result of this personal feud.

If a collection is stripped of a collector’s touch, and all signs that can help us understand why those disparate objects were brought together to form a collection are eliminated, we’re left with nothing more than a meaningless agglomeration of things. That’s why I find it both intriguing and revealing to see those things writ large in private museums such as the Soane Museum where collectors are able to express their relationship with their collections. I’m hoping that we’ll see much the same thing when MONA opens in January – because it certainly sounds like we’re going to get a very interesting peek at David Walsh, the collector, via his gallery.

(image of the Sir John Soane Museum via

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?

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