The International Herald Tribune‘s art market writer, and a scholar in his own right, wants to interpret last night’s sale at Christie’s in two mutually exclusive ways. After remarking that obscure, academic and incomplete works by Klee, Miró and Gonzalès were attracting bids and strong prices and marvelling that a von Jawlensky that was bought in February of 2008 had returned to the market last night and sold for a slight increase in value, he goes on to make this summary of the sale:
So what was wrong with the auction Tuesday? First, too many works were being regurgitated after having made a recent appearance in the market. Egon Schiele’s drawing of a woman seated naked done in 1914 was seen at Christie’s New York on May 9, 2007, when it had cost the consignor the equivalent of £782,000. This time no one wanted it. Next came one of von Jawlensky’s near abstract renditions of a human face done in the early 1920s. This had been bought by the consignor for £264,000 on June 18, 2007, at Christie’s London. The Jawlensky too was left unwanted.
A bigger problem on Tuesday was the excessive number of indifferent, drab works that will no longer sell like hot cakes now that the newcomers to the art market with money burning their fingers have receded into the background. Crass mediocrities managed to pull through only when the auctioneer was willing to let them go far below the lower end of the estimate. […] Otherwise utterly undesirable pictures fell dead without a battle. They included a self-portrait by Soutine, the portrait of a young boy dashed off in a few minutes by Picasso in December 1964, and a few more.The hard lesson for auction houses is that scraping the barrel to fill a catalog no longer does the trick.
Consistency has never bothered Melikian but isn’t this violently contradictory? Indeed, the stripped of its condescension, Melikian’s analysis may be onto something. Obviously works are “regurgitated” for a variety of reasons. The financial meltdown is undoubtedly driving some recently bought work that cannot attract buyers privately into the auctions. That’s what an auction is for, to seek a public price where no private, negotiated price can be established.
More interesting is the fact that even in this economic climate, there remain artists and works that are appreciating in esteem and value. The Nahmad family seems to be betting on that with Miró and some von Jawlenskys also fall under that heading.
As for Dr. Melikian, the problem is never with his taste or knowledge but always with his understanding of markets. In short, prices are not an indication of value. They are a mechanism for exchange. So when an worthy work sells for a great deal of money it is either a sign of aesthetic misjudgment or market ineffeciency, but not a measure of the work’s intrinsic art historical worth. That can only be discovered through non-monetary mechanisms.
Buyers Focus on Works Worth the Fight (New York Times)