There is something about the art market that makes the world’s best news organizations abandon skepticism in favor of hype. Last week numerous observers were struck by the efforts of one newspaper to promote the idea that the art market is driven by financialization and the blockchain without much in the way of solid evidence.
This week, the Wall Street Journal covers the well-plowed ground of Instagram and the art world. These sort of trend pieces are a staple of slow news months in the Summer. But this particular story opens with an vignette that eerily recapitulates one from Bloomberg published in December of 2016. Here’s the Journal’s lead:
As he boarded a plane for Hong Kong in late 2016, Brett Gorvy, then global head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, posted an image of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on his Instagram feed. Upon landing, he found he had three text messages from clients interested in buying the 1982 work, a portrait of Sugar Ray Robinson and part of an upcoming private-sale exhibition. One client swiftly put the painting on hold and purchased it two days later, reportedly for about $24 million. Today, looking back, Gorvy claims it all happened by accident. His post, he explains, “wasn’t about marketing or selling. It was just like, I’ve got something really special, and I’d love the public to share it.” Despite his demurral, this sale—widely regarded as the first major blue-chip Instagram transaction—signaled the power the app had attained in the art world’s upper echelons, where not so long ago dealers staunchly maintained that no true collector would dream of buying from a jpeg.
How long would you have to go back to find anyone in the art market who might claim that “no true collector would dream of buying from a jpeg”? Ten years? Fifteen years? How long would you have to go back to find skepticism about buying from a transparency? 30 years?
More to the point, if that story about the Basquiat sounds familiar that’s because it got a lot of coverage 18 months ago when it first appeared on Bloomberg:
Shortly before his plane took off from New York last month, Christie’s top dealmaker, Brett Gorvy, posted a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson on Instagram. When Gorvy landed in Hong Kong 16 hours later, he discovered text messages from three clients asking if the painting was available. One immediately made an offer for the 1982 canvas showing Robinson as a squat, scowling figure. The deal was completed two days later for about $24 million — more than triple the $7.3 million the work fetched at auction in 2007.
Kazakina’s original story was picked up by a number of other news outlets. The Journal mentions none of this. But there’s another layer to this. The story that Gorvy told Kazakina (and that the Journal repeats as if it was news) doesn’t comport with what many in the industry observed during the Hong Kong selling event Gorvy recounted.
AMMpro subscribers know that Christie’s sold the work for a price below the $24m claimed. It’s not uncommon in the art market to see sellers claim asking prices as purchase prices. But one might expect the Wall Street Journal would have the institutional knowledge to put the story in context. We should add that there were many market participants who observed the selling of the work. Those witnesses have offered information that puts Gorvy’s claims into doubt. Gorvy is a private dealer cultivating clients. There’s nothing wrong with his trying to put his best case forward for his ability to sell works for clients.
What’s remarkable here is how quickly and without reflection or reporting the press repeats these claims.
How Instagram Became the Art World’s Obsession (Wall Street Journal)