Art Auction

Art agent loses Corot painting in drunken stupor

Isaac Mostovicz writes that carelessness had lead to the loss of a great painting...

A man who was acting as an agent for the sale of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1857-58 painting “Portrait of a Girl” (estimated value: $1.35 million) lost the painting while intoxicated, according to a lawsuit recently filed in New York state. Following a meeting with the painting’s co-owner Tom Doyle and interested buyer Offer Wasserman, James Carl Haggerty, the agent enlisted to sell the portrait (and a friend of Doyle’s), was given the painting by co-owner Tom Doyle in order to deliver it to Offer Wasserman at his hotel. The potential buyer wanted to inspect it further under UV light.

According to CCTV footage, Haggerty did bring the painting to Wasserman at his hotel, but the painting mostly stayed behind the front desk, and the two spent time together at the hotel’s bar, until Wasserman left at 11:30pm without the painting and Haggerty stayed behind at the bar, picking up the painting from behind the front desk at 12:50am and leaving with it while visibly intoxicated. Footage outside his building shows that he no longer had the painting when he arrived home at 2:30am. The next morning he called Doyle to say he couldn’t remember where the painting was because he had been so intoxicated the night before.

The bottom line: make sure you have responsible business partners! You may like your friends, but sometimes they aren’t the best people to do business with.

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Picasso and Art as an Investment

Isaac Mostovicz writes that a 'deliciously conventional' Picasso goes for an exceptional price...

Pablo Picasso’s Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur or ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ recently sold for a whopping $106.5 million, overtaking the world record set by a previous Picasso piece, Garcon a la Pipe which sold for $104 million in 2004. This is surprising considering it was only predicted to bring in $70 million, and even more so, says Graham T. Beck of The Awl because it has “everything to do with the lowest common denominator” and is “deliciously conventional.”

Agreeing with this is unimpressed New York Times art critic Holland Cotter:

“Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” and other paintings from its period are old and easy, art as usual. They keep to the known, the pleasure zone; they keep old orders firm, artist over subject, man over woman, woman as thing, a pink blob with closed eyes.

Whether you agree with this or not, Beck is quick to point out that it does not matter:

…when it comes to the auction block or the firehouse cookout, the proof isn’t stewing in the pot or penned on the critic’s page but in the dollars paid or the stumpy little fingers of the Napoleonic chief who never calls my name no matter how much salt and cheese I spill into that bubbling pot of ground round.

Putting aside Beck’s chocolate chili parody, what is important here is that Beck seems to suggest that the value of the painting cannot be endowed by a critic’s or professional’s assessment but by its final purchase price. Certainly, want is a crucial factor in determining the value of an item. The more an item is wanted, the more valuable it is and consequently, the more money spent. This reminds me of an old blog post of mine on Damien Hirst’s Diamond skull when I asked:

When the value of a piece is as astronomical as For the Love of God, does the focus necessarily have to shift from art to investment?

Here, it is the $106.5million which has shifted our views from investment to art. What this shows is not only a possible revival in the art market, but also a change in luxury attitudes. This certainly corresponds to an earlier blog post of mine about a new breed of luxury consumer. Roberta Smith of the New York Times is going along the right lines when she questions the coy art of the mystery bidder:

Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast at it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic…

We look on, gape-mouthed, as the figure rises and then clamor to know. We think we are the observers, but actually we are the observed. It is Buyer X who is most in control and who therefore derives the greatest pleasure from the actual transaction. Anonymity only makes it that much more pleasurable and voyeuristic.

If this is true, luxury consumers and their reasons for buying are becoming ever more complicated and dynamic.

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Blue Diamond Auction Brings in Asian Markets

Isaac Mostovicz writes that a diamond fetched a mighty price...


Yesterday a rare 5.16 carat blue diamond was sold at auction in Hong Kong for $6.4 million, half a million more than the top price that Sotheby’s estimated. Terry Chu, deputy head of Sotheby’s jewellery department for China and Southeast Asia, said:

There have been a lot of new diamond buyers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and elsewhere in the region. I think after the financial crisis, the Asian buyers realized that the prices of diamond are relatively stable compared to other types of auction items.

It’s interesting that Asian buyers are so interested in diamonds (though it should be noted that the eventual buyer was Moussaieff Jewellers of London) — we’ve seen other markets beginning to heat up in Asia. This auction and the auctions for other diamonds from the De Beers Millennium Collection that will surely follow are yet more signs that economic recovery is underway.

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China’s Lambda personalities opt for nontraditional investments

Isaac Mostovicz writes that China's growing presence in the global luxury industry could have implications in the Western world...

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Being wealthy is one thing, and being art-buying wealthy is another. Luxury Insider reports that ultra-rich Chinese are beginning to throw their considerable status and wealth around in nontraditional (for Chinese) markets such as art and wine.

The article features a very interesting quote by Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby’s in Hong Kong:

“We saw a big surge in Chinese buying in categories that they were not familiar with. We have now seen mainland buying – not in huge quantities – of Western, Impressionist and contemporary art.”

This tells us that wealthy Chinese people are buying items because of their real and perceived worth. They are seeking to become a part of the small circle of western art buyers who spend large sums on buying art. Essentially they are taking cues from the Lambda personalities who they count as their friends or colleagues.

The article also has some key figures that further illustrate China’s growth into a global luxe powerhouse, a crown that once belonged to Japan.

For the first time in Sotheby’s 10-year history in Hong Kong, mainland buyers accounted for nearly 40 percent of Sotheby’s Asian sales during last autumn’s auctions. That figure represents a two-fold jump from 18 percent in the fall of 2008.

Does this newfound interest in expensive art signal a dimming interest in diamonds in Asia? It’s hard to say at this point.

What’s certain is that China’s rapidly growing economy is major impact on the local luxe industry, and that impact is reverberating on the other side of the globe, causing a mad dash by Western’s luxe labels to get a foothold in this booming new luxe market.

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Optimistic Results For London Art Auctions

Isaac Mostovicz writes that contemporary art auction results are pleasing...

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Following up on my previous post covering the Contemporary Art Auctions that took place in London in June, I can happily note that positive predictions proved accurate. Despite several pessimistic estimates by market pundits, outcomes are above expectations.

Prestigious auction house Sotheby’s sold 37 out of 40 lots for a total of £25,549,450 (almost $42 million). This is 92.5 per cent sold, a sell-through percentage which, according to Sotheby’s contemporary art expert Cheyenne Westphal, is “one of the highest ever”. The auction’s top price came for Andy Warhol’s Tunafish Disaster, which sold for £3,737,250 ($ 6.1 million). Ten of the lots at the auction sold for over $1 million.

At Christie’s 35 out of 40, or 88 per cent, of lots were sold for a total of £31,063,350 ($31,778,604). This minimal failure rate of 12 per cent compares with the auction house’s best performances, when the market was on its height. Peter Doig’s Night Playground went for £3,009,250 (ca $5 million), fetching the highest ever action price for the artist.

Phillips De Pury & Company sold 30 out of 39, or 77 per cent, of their lots for a total of 7,396,700. It set the sales record for an astonishing 18 artists including Jack Goldstein and Ashley Bickerton.

However, despite these delightful outcomes, sales results of auctions are still substantially below what contemporary art auctions achieved when the art boom was at its height.

As one could expect, this is not necessarily the fault of bidders, but largely due to consignors, who are unwilling to sell high-profile, high-value pieces in a weak market. Auction houses have also shown an unusual unwillingness to guarantee sellers minimum prices on lots.

Considering this, as well the current financial climate, bidders were impressively keen, chasing artists rarely or even never seen at auction. Art advisor Wendy Goldsmith, quoted at Bloomberg.com, said that buyers “now focus on the available material. The market has stabilized. From now on things will improve”.

Photo by Ehsan Khakbaz

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Art auction shows uniqueness is a unique selling point

Isaac Mostovicz writes that those who can afford true luxury will continue to seek it in today’s economic climate...

Earlier this week, Pierre Bergé, partner of the late Yves Saint Laurent, put the pair’s large collection of art up for auction at Christie’s. The results were stunning in today’s economic climate–the works took in $264 million. It’s a good reminder that despite the recession, there are still plenty of wealthy people willing to spend on rare things that they interpret as truly luxurious. The Matisse paintings fetched a great deal in particular, because, as the New York Times notes

Few Matisse paintings of quality come on the market, and each of the three Matisse paintings did better than its estimates.

A Picasso was pulled from the auction when bidding stopped at 21 million euros, less than the 25-30 million euro range expected. Said Isabelle de Wavrin, deputy editor of BeauxArts magazine:

Picassos are not rare. But everyone is looking for a good Matisse.

Those who can afford true luxury will continue to seek it in today’s economic climate–luxury is what makes us human. Those who sell luxury need to ensure that what they’re offering is truly unique.

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Lambda and Theta Appeal at Hirst Auction

Isaac Mostovicz writes...

Following up this post: Amidst the financial chaos earlier this week, Damien Hirst managed to bring in £111 million for his latest collection at auction. He smashed Sotheby’s previous record for a collection of work by a single artist, held by a Piccasso collection that sold for $20 million in 1993.

I think the desire to own a Hirst piece can be understood through the lens of either a Lambda or Theta worldview. Lambdas seek achievement and uniqueness as their end goal. Hirst’s signature pieces, the animals in formaldehyde, are nothing if not unique, appealing to Lambda sensibilities.

However, it’s interesting to note that 5 of the 223 pieces in the auction did not sell. The reason? They weren’t immediately recognizable as pieces by Damien Hirst (one example: ‘Killing Time,’ a plastic box filled with a desk, office chair, pills and a watch). This suggests that the people buying these pieces were seeking this ‘obviously by Hirst’ quality; they’re using their purchase to fit in and enhance their status among their peers, which is typical Theta behavior.

Whether the purchasers were Lambdas or Thetas, I do wonder if they’ll still feel their purchases were worthwhile in a few months’ time as uncertainty in global financial markets continues.

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Immediate Appreciation: Hirst Goes to the Auction House

Isaac Mostovicz writes...

We’ve seen Damien Hirst challenge convention (and notions of connoisseurship) in the art world before with his diamond skull. For his newest project, he’s not just creating controversial art–he’s also challenging contemporary art’s business model.

It used to be that art dealers had a window of about five years to sell (and resell) a new piece of art, earning about a 50% commission on each sale, before auction houses would accept the pieces to sell. For his new collection, Damien Hirst is cutting out the middleman, selling all 223 pieces directly through Sotheby’s next week. The pieces are as bold as ever and include The Kingdom, an 8ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, and The Golden Calf, a life-sized bull with gold-plated hooves and horns also suspended in formaldehyde.

This auction is a very interesting move by Hirst; he’s probably one of the few artists (perhaps only artist) who could pull it off. He’s well enough established that connoisseurs know what they’re getting when they purchase one of his pieces without it floating around on the market for a while. Hirst also wants to collect more for pieces up front rather than have them appreciate:

From an article in the Times of London:

“The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” he says. “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” He compares a Prada outlet and an Oxfam shop. Why, in the world of shoes, do you pay more for a new pair from Prada, while in the world of art, the big money kicks in only when the shoes get to Oxfam?

I think this is a fascinating comparison–however, one of the reasons that Prada shoes and other luxury goods sell for so much more new is that they do wear in ways that that artwork won’t–artwork can be appreciated in the same way whether it’s new or old, and generally time (or the passing of the artist) makes people appreciate the work even more. Though it’s funny that Hirst should make this comparison, as some of his formaldehyde works have actually worn in ways that traditional art wouldn’t and needed restoration.

If you’re in London, you can see the whole collection on show at Sotheby’s through September 15.

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Do-it-Yourself Online Art Sales for Billionaires

Isaac Mostovicz writes...

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A French artist named Dogmael Damien has set up his own website targeting billionaires in search of their next big acquisition, a recent Art Newspaper article reports.  The artist’s site is now online and markets itself as “Paintings for Billionaires Only”.  Each of the three paintings currently on the site can be had for only €150 million (and without any commission!).

None of the paintings has sold as of yet, but Damien has held firm to his concept.  He writes further on the site:

The acquisition of these paintings will cause a shock in the Art World, not only for the spectacular stunning massive price paid for it, but also for the private way it will be sold, far away from the noisy auction places.

This private sale would have made these paintings the world’s most expensive ever sold in art history. The Most expensive Living Artist.

The recent boom in art sales has seen works of art selling for well beyond their list prices at art fairs or presale estimates at auctions.  A Russian billionaire businessman named Alisher Usmanov recently bought 450 lots outright before the start of a Sotheby’s sale in October for “substantially above” the initial expectations of the sale.

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