Roberta Smith couldn’t resist having a go at the Picasso sale earlier this week at Christie’s. In a essay about the buyer’s anonymity, Smith concludes that the auction market has returned to an orgy of self-congratulatory consumption. She wonders if revealing the buyer’s name might not have a positive cooling effect on the market:
And it might have put our attention back on the art itself and made the whole thing less of a circus. But the art world and the world at large are now back in their boom-time positions regarding auctions, which is watching the money, oohing and ahhing and making the spending of it that much more of a turn-on.
Sadly, this statement is a misrepresentation of the week’s Impressionist and Modern sales. Smith could have watched the bidding in various videos released to see that there was hardly any oohing and definitely no ahhing during the Picasso sale.
Indeed, last week’s auctions were remarkably sedate for the amount of money that was being bid. Even the aggressive bidders at Sotheby’s–the bronze buyer who scooped up 4 works and the bid-jumper who impatiently drove a Monet forward–failed to electrify the room. Whole rows of seats were empty at Sotheby’s. Some perfunctory, polite–obligatory, really–applause greeted the world record price.
Whatever is going on in the art market, Smith, and other critics who sniffed at the sale, is not getting at it. The atmosphere is decidedly different from the peak in 2007-2008. The audiences are smaller, the seats are filled with regulars and pros. There’s no circus and not a frisson of erotic excitement.
Art has gained a greater, broader value in the world today. More countries and individuals and institutions have the money and desire to compete for great works. Had the Brody heirs simply given the art to a museum, Smith suggests they ought to have done, it would have simply been an advantage to a Southern California institution over a person or institution somewhere else. Let’s not make too much of this. It’s really not more complicated than that.
The Coy Art of the Mystery Bidder (New York Times)