In the midst of a world-wide economic slump that has seen massive job losses in every sector of the economy from raw materials to media to finance and construction, The International Herald Tribune‘s artistically erudite reporter, Souren Melikian, would like to believe that the trimming of $7 million in expenses at each auction house (where revenues are in the hundreds of millions of dollars) amounts to capitulation for the business:
The financial crisis that managements are endeavoring to forestall by reducing overheads is the inevitable consequence of the metamorphosis undergone by auction houses over the last four decades. The service industry that auctioneering had been for two centuries – and still was in the 1960s – has turned into a purely commercial venture trying to emulate big business. [ . . . ] Unlike the previous generation of auction house leaders to whom art was an object of admiration and personal desire, some of the new managers looked upon it as merchandise.
Set aside for a moment the fact that entire history of material culture is the history of commercial endeavors with many of the most successful artists and artisans having also been astute, aggressive and ambitious men. Ignore, too, the fact that the origins of many great works of art can be traced to vanity and aggrandizement.
Think for a second about what “experts” accomplish when they claim the role of arbiter of value and merit. They usurp a more complex process. Here, Melikian complains about auction catalogues offering too much information. It would seem they allow the uninitiated access they ought not to possess or will be misguided by:
Cataloguing was startlingly different from what it is today. Descriptions ran to two or three lines for objects and a paragraph for significant pictures, never to several pages in doctoral dissertation style. They were aimed at buyers who knew about art or wanted to learn about it by training their eyes. The textual content was matter of fact, rarely effusively laudatory as is common nowadays when catalogues read like marketing brochures.
The spectacular rise in the 1970s and 1980s of interest in art generally and in buying art particularly paradoxically changed all that. Engineered by the auction houses, only too glad to attract more buyers, and by museums in search of a broader public with their blockbuster shows, the rush on art had an unintended consequence.
Financial Squeeze Was Inevitable for Auction Houses (International Herald Tribune)