The New York Times has an awesome advantage in its coverage of the art market. The auction houses’ clientele pay attention to the newspaper of record more than any other publication. So their arts reporters get first dibs on new lots and other exclusives. This drives a lot of the rest of the arts press batty but the logic of it is so compelling from both sides of the equation (the auction houses’ press needs and the Times’s coverage needs) that it should be an accepted and inevitable part of the landscape.
The mystery is why the Times does not make more of its advantageous position. It ought to have a savvy and sophisticated view of the inner workings of the art market. But instead it affects a one-note tone somewhat at odds with the idea of an art market in general. (See the headline on the story cited below.) That too would be defensible if it applied a little more logical rigor to its analysis. Here are two examples from today’s paper where ambitious conclusions are drawn about a seller’s intentions.
First, a discussion of sellers who accepted guarantees that presumes the sellers are always timing the market:
As recently as six months ago, sellers, their bank accounts flush with cash incentives from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, readily parted with rare treasures like Degas pastels and Bacon self-portraits. After all, they were ensured astronomical prices no matter what, and many of them were betting that the good times were about to end. These collectors were right and ended up the season’s winners.
That may have been the case but it also might as easily been the case that the sellers had no expectations about the future of the art market and were simply responding to a remarkable offer. Something that sellers did year in and year out before the top was reached. The paragraph also makes the assumption that the art market is only a massive game of poker with buyers and sellers each trying to outwit the other.
Speaking of calculating moves, the second example is this comment about Wolfgang Joop who is selling a cache of Tamara de Lempicka paintings. Though the Times makes it clear that these paintings are bought and sold often–and that Christie’s also has a high-value de Lempicka, here the interpretation is that Mr. Joop timed his sale for maximum exposure of his art work in the sale catalogues. Again, that could be the case but it would be an odd trade-off to miss the market of a generation and world of easy money just to get top billing in auction catalogue.
Six are for sale in two consecutive evenings at Sotheby’s and Christie’s this week (four at Sotheby’s and two at Christie’s), and six more will be up in day auctions. Ten of them belong to Wolfgang Joop, a German fashion designer, who is taking advantage of the fact that in these tough times he can get star billing for his paintings, whereas a year ago, when there was no end of quality works for sale, these paintings would have been relegated to the back of a catalog. As fate would have it, Christie’s is also selling two important canvases by Lempicka.
Some alternative explanations are that Joop was persuaded to sell precisely because the rest of the market is dormant and demand for de Lempickas has remained strong. (An interpretation that is supported by Christie’s having the de Lempicka work with the highest estimate.) It could also be the case that Joop got hit hard this Autumn and is just selling because he needs to sell.
$80 million? Try a Tenth of That. Art’s New Numbers. (New York Times)