Ed Dolman says everyone has to do more with less; Who bought the KAWS? Not Bieber; Calouste Gulbenkian’s deal with Stalin; Melva Bucksbaum’s Litchfield retreat.
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Who Makes Money in the Art Market? Collectors
Kathryn Tully caught Ed Dolman’s keynote at a conference this week that included this very interesting comment on the business:
- “The people who have really made a great deal of money in the art market over the last few years are the people who put capital to work in it,” he said in a speech at The Art Business Conference in New York on Tuesday, pointing out that although global art sales are growing, revenues at auction houses and dealers are falling. “The onus is on us to be able to compete with much lower revenues than we expected in the past.”
Dolman’s first point about putting capital to work is a reference to the collectors. Later, Tully quotes Dolman as saying, “If you were lucky enough to be able invest a few tens of millions of dollars in the art market in the 1990s and bought well, you have made extraordinarily returns.” It also means that despite the growth of the large multi-city, multi-space art dealerships, the owners of the most sought-after art, where the best prices might be expected, hold all of the cards.
The effect of that position, Dolman seems to be saying, is that the auction houses and dealers, who are competing more and more for the same sales, have seen their margins consistently squeezed.
Is There a Single KAWS Buyer Driving This Market?
Independent art market journalist Judith Benhamou-Huet has heard that the buyer is a French industrial scion, Raphael Geismar, who lives in Hong Kong and owns a restaurant group:
- Rumour has it that there has been a purchase by Raphael Geismar owner of the Bibo restaurant in Hong Kong among other things […]
One keen KAWS collector responds to that by saying, “everyone knows that.” Here by everyone he means all of the KAWS hypebeasts who are increasingly global and surprsingly run the gamut from Instagram braggers to established collectors.
Benhamou-Huet also points to the fact that Germano Celant was the curator of the current HOCA (Hong Kong Contemporary Art) Foundation show put on to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong. “Through taking up the position of curator of the exhibition Kaws: Along the way,” Benhamou-Huet writes, “Celant is lending his credentials to a creation that might seem marginal to many in the global artistic and critical circles.”
Celant won’t be getting his credentials back this weekend when the show closes. In October, it will be remounted in Doha.
Getting into obsessive detail about KAWS and his collectors is a bit of an occupational hazard for KAWS fans. One obsessive recently traced a number the works in Celant’s HOCA show back to a private Instagram account. This person wrote up his or her findings in a Medium post that has been taken down. The obsessive thinks KAWS or Geismar might be behind the takedown. That’s what happens when you’re an obsessive.
Having established that several works from the HOCA show are connected to that one Instagram account which our sleuth says identifies itself as originating in Hong Kong, the next step was to find KAWS collectors there. The only other visible trove of the artist’s work in Hong Kong is at the restaurant Bibo, which is owned by Raphael Geismar. Some other creative Googling puts Geismar in contact with other KAWS collectors and a dealer who also works with HOCA.
There’s no real reason to believe, as our sleuth does, that the HOCA show draws heavily from Geismar’s collection. But the logic isn’t too faulty. Add to the pile of circumstantial evidence the fact that one of the works in the HOCA show was purchased a year ago at Phillips in London for a very aggressive price of $1.2m over estimates of $200-350k. That’s a bidding pattern not dissimilar from the record sale of The KAWS Album.
Geismar isn’t the only collector people are jumping to conclusions about. Benhamou-Huet also repeats the notion that the Mugrabi family “has for a long time been a massive buyer of Kaws.” It seems to be true that the Mugrabis have sold a lot of work by KAWS in recent years. But other collectors in the KAWS market say they came by the works through a single private sale. No one is sure how much more they have to sell.
More important, the Mugrabis don’t seem to be active buyers. None of the family members have been seen bidding on KAWS lots in public sales. When the family does participate in a market, they tend to broadcast the fact for a variety of reasons including helping to maintain price levels. So far, this market hasn’t needed their help.
The danger in the KAWS market is that prices will rise too quickly choking off demand and supply at the same time. Few seem to worry that prices will drop as too much material gets dumped on the market to take advantage of the new price levels.
Some collectors point out there is very little of this early work that can be sold. Take, for example, the two Kurfs (KAWS + Smurf) works on offer next month. Two works from the same show appearing in the same season gives the uninitiated the impression Kurfs are plentiful. That just isn’t the case. There seem to be only about a dozen of these works to begin with. Pharrell Williams, who is a friend of the artist, seems to own the bulk of them. One collector who owns a Kurf claims there are only about four or five that Pharrell doesn’t own. The collector knows where one other example is held. That leaves possibly one more after the two that are up for sale this Spring.
According to this collector, Asian buyers are well aware of this.
The Passion of Calouste Gulbenkian
The London Review of Books has Christina Riggs’s take on the life of Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, who like J. Paul Getty after him, became an obsessive art collector. “The future of my paintings, to which I have given the best of myself, torments me constantly,” Riggs quotes him as saying in her review of Jonathan Conlin’s biography, Mr. Five Percent. The collection wound up in Portugal with a massive endowment. But before that, Gulbenkian was able to use his unique position in the world of oil exploration to acquire some of his best pieces:
- “In one of the stranger episodes in his collecting career, Gulbenkian was invited to go shopping at the Hermitage. In 1928 Stalin set sales targets for Soviet museums, just as Gulbenkian was smoothing the path of Russian oil interests in Persia. It took two years of hard negotiating, but for £155,000 (nearly £9,000,000 today), he secured a Rubens, two Rembrandts, an assortment of silver and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s life-size marble Diana, which took pride of place in the entrance of his Paris house as it once had at Tsarskoye Selo. All the works avoided French customs duty due to Gulbenkian’s diplomatic status as a member of the Persian legation in Paris.”
Can’t Live Without Your Art When You’re in Litchfield?
Melva Bucksbaum’s 51-acre compound of a 9,000 sq ft five-bedroom home, three guest houses, a caretaker’s cottage, a swimming pool and 14,000 sq ft art gallery with additional storage is listed for $20m, according to the WSJ’s Mansion Global:
- “The most distinctive feature of the estate is The Granary, the art gallery that was designed by New York City-based architect Steven Learner and built by the security specialist firm Structure Works in 2009.The Granary, which features geo-thermal heating and cooling systems, has four distinct exhibition spaces, two art-storage vaults and a glass freight elevator. “