The Art Newspaper kindly asked me to write something about the effect of the Knoedler case that caused such a flurry of worry last December. You’ll remember that it came out Knoedler had been involved in the sale of a number of dubious works by giants of American modernism like Motherwell, Pollock and Diebenkorn. The specific question was whether this case would renew calls for regulation in the art market.
The piece tries to point out that galleries and dealers are already regulated by the commercial laws but the contributing factors in these stories is something that government cannot easily regulate. Take the diffusion of responsibility that comes with the growing number of intermediaries involved in secondary market deals:
While intermediaries are not necessarily a sign of trouble, the chain of people involved in the Lagrange case seems to have created a diffusion of responsibility. The situation is not atypical. “There used to be clear pipelines that art would go into, but now there is a complex matrix,” says David Houston, the director of the curatorial department at the Crystal Bridges Museum. The institution has made no secret of its desire to buy a major Pollock, but is navigating busy waters. “We see a lot more middlemen in the market today than we did ten years ago—people who are part-adviser, part-dealer and part-picker,” he says.
More to the point, I think the regulation question is misdirected. Art’s ultimate value is not economic. Unlike debt vehicles, real property or equities, there is no independent way to measure value and regulate trading. Scholars, not accountants, police the art market. Increasingly, those scholars are feeling threatened by art owners who bully them into keeping negative opinions to themselves.
Ultimately, the best way to protect the art market—and address the issue of regulation—is to safeguard scholarship: this underpins an artists’ value, provides proof of provenance and lubricates an expanding market. As the art business continues to globalise, its growth depends upon making scholarship reliable and accessible. Because, in the end, the experts are the only candidates who can provide the adult supervision the market desperately craves.
Art market analysis: A market in need of supervision (The Art Newspaper)