This commentary on the Sotheby’s inclusion of Latin American art in its Contemporary sales is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions come with a free first month grace period. Subscribers are welcome to sign up for the service and cancel at any time before they are billed.
Artnet covered Sotheby’s announcement that Contemporary Latin American art would be sold in the auction house’s Contemporary art sales with a headline that exclaimed the move was, “signalling the sector’s maturity.”
The move recognizes the growing audience and appetite for work by Latin American artists and comes at a time when collectors and museums alike are beginning to seamlessly integrate Latin American work into their postwar art collections.
While the quote is undoubtedly true and has been part of a longer-term trend in the art market, the idea that Latin American art has matured is dismissive of, and condescending to, a broad range of artists who have been at the forefront of the art world for half a century.
There’s also something else entirely taking place here. And it is all about the Contemporary art market. Let’s take a step back.One explanation for the drop in sales in 2016 was the complaint that substantial demand remained in the art market but there was little available supply to meet it. This was generally interpreted to mean that persons who owned the really, really great paintings weren’t selling them. That left the market starved for big sales.
But this isn’t really how the art market works. A big part of what the market does is create value in the sense that the combination of curatorial/scholarly opinion and exhibitions with the careful market cultivation of sales can increase an artist’s value substantially over time.
It wasn’t so long ago that Francis Bacon was sold in British and Irish art sales. Over the last two decades, his foundation has sponsored near continuous exhibitons; collectors have responded with demand; and auction houses and dealers have triangulated their sales to bring more works to the market at greater and greater prices.
This alchemy is a delicate dance. Too often it is seen in retrospect as if it were the product of dark forces of “hype” or “manipulation.” But, in truth, for every market like Bacon’s or Calder’s or Richter’s where a respected artist went from being part of the background landscape of critical opinion to moving into the foreground of market stardom, there have been numerous artists who never broke big.
One of the biggest stories in the Contemporary art market over the last several years has been the rotation in market leadership from Warhol to Richter to Basquiat. Art markets thrive on a sense of discovery and adventurism. A speculator is someone who sees what others do not. The term is more associated with financial gain but many in the art market are using money as a way to keep score in a game that is far more important.
Value in art is fundamentally social. Financial value in art comes when there is someone with a surfeit of money who wants the social and cultural value of another’s insight. You were prescient enough to see the value in Francis Bacon’s Pope paintings. Henry Kravis, having come to the same conclusion as you did but much later, is willing to pay you more than anyone has ever paid before for your Pope painting. After that, there’s a flood of interest in Bacon’s work that raises his prices and stature.
That’s how markets are made.
What’s this got to do with Latin American art? Well, the Contemporary art market has been drying up of late. Buyers want work by historical masters with undervalued markets. A decade ago, Sotheby’s was able to break out the Zero Group of artists, adding substantial value to their works through a series of sales.
Allen Schwartzmann played an important role in the advancement of the Gutai artists in particular and other Asian abstract movements. These artists were easily drafted into Contemporary art because there was no competing category.
In the Latin American field, there are a number of similar and similarly talented artists like Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus Rafael Soto, Sergio Carmargo and Luis Tomasello who could be sold well to Contemporary buyers. There are also a significant number of women—Carmen Herrera, Lygia Pape and Lygia Clark, just to name a few that have gotten a fair bit of attention recently—among Latin American artists which can only help the Contemporary category.
Whether intentional or by accident, Sotheby’s is also diversifying the market for Contemporary by making it less dependent upon a few exceedingly important and valuable names. That too is a good thing.