Market Monday: Grab Bag
After a week where no central theme emerged, offering up a random handful of morsels from around the industry...
Let My Assets Go: Less than 10 months after shaking up the auction sector by acquiring blue-chip advisory firm and serial comma-misuser Art Agency, Partners, Sotheby's announced another unexpected buy-out on Thursday: this time, of the Mei Moses Art Indices. For the uninitiated, Nate Freeman sums up the MMAI well by describing the platform as an "analytics tool that judges strength of the art market against other asset classes... by looking at works that have been sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s more than once, and tracking the changes in purchase value over time." In other words, the indices attempt to neatly quantify lots repeatedly flipped at the Big Two houses in some of the same ways as securities analysts quantify traditional investment-grade commodities, all for the sake of easy comparison between the art market and financial markets. The platform will be renamed the Sotheby's Mei Moses Index as part of the deal.
Adam Chinn, Sotheby's executive vice president, essentially portrayed the acquisition as a way for both the house and its clients to upgrade their understanding of market value and timing. More important to me, he also stressed that this trove of auction-sector information––formerly available to anyone willing to pay Mei Moses for entry––will now be strictly proprietary to Sotheby's and its customers.
In my eyes, this element of "unique access," as Sotheby's press release calls it, clarifies the strategic impulse behind the MMAI acquisition. It isn't just another step in the house's ongoing quest to become a one-stop shop offering every service an art-market player could ever want, from private selling to advising to shipping and storage. The acquisition also represents an attempt to outcompete Christie's through incentives that are more forward-thinking––and, in the long run, likely more cost-efficient––than typical auction-sector deal-sweeteners. So Sotheby's might not always be willing to back up the Brinks truck to its consignors, and it can never secure its bidders the opportunity to snap up every highly prized lot that enters the marketplace. But by absorbing and black-boxing the MMAI, it can try to entice buyers and sellers alike with exclusive looks at the (supposedly) hard science that can (purportedly) give them an edge in the "art investment" game. And whether or not the Mei Moses data ACTUALLY does what it advertises, the perception that it COULD has real value in an increasingly finance-minded industry. [ARTnews]
Original Sin: A few weeks after news first broke about a potential mass fraud in the Old Master market, Nina Siegal wrote a revealing tick-tock covering the scandal's (at least) eight-year-and-counting lifespan, largely through the lens of its patient zero: a painting titled "Portrait of a Man," alleged to be from "a school of [Frans] Hals or follower of Hals." Siegal reports that the whole sordid affair began when collector Giuliano Ruffini approached Christie's in 2008 for help authenticating the work in question, which he claimed to have recently acquired. According to Ruffini's attorney, Christie's experts examined the piece and determined that it was "probably an original"––a conclusion that subsequently triggered the French state to label the piece a temporarily un-exportable national treasure and, soon after, the Louvre to begin negotiations to acquire it for a price of €5 million.
According to both a Christie's spokesman and Ruffini's attorney, the Louvre deal collapsed only when the auction house requested late in the process, and for reasons unstated to Siegal, that Ruffini guarantee the work's authenticity. He refused to do so––wisely, I would say, even if he believed the piece was legitimate––and the Louvre ultimately passed on the portrait. London dealer Mark Weiss, however, was confident enough in the painting's origins to acquire it for $3 million after the export ban expired in 2010, effectively providing for-profit corroboration of multiple scholars' and authenticators' shared opinion that the piece was "a very important addition to Hals's oeuvre." Most embarrassing of all? Many of these same luminaries stand by their judgments today, even after a 2016 pigment analysis determined that some or all of the paints used in "Portrait of a Man" were clearly not made during Hals's lifetime over 350 years ago.
While Siegal correctly emphasizes how damning this saga is for the traditional and still too-often trusted process of artwork authentication, her story also illuminates an even more foundational, and perhaps even more worthwhile, point about the art market as a whole. Whether a given piece comes from a deceased great or an emerging talent, it only accrues legitimacy and value through the subjective approval of a small, frequently self-interested group of industry insiders and professed experts. For example, even though I'm sure that the art establishment had no reason to doubt the attribution of the first polychromed aluminum balloon dog pumped out by the studio of Jeff Koons––who, by the way, likes to reaffirm his strong stance against classism by going to coffee shops––the piece would have been worth no more than a fake Hals if influential gallerists, dealers, curators, and collectors simply said, "Nope, not into it." And for better and worse, no advance in authentication technology will ever change that reality. [The New York Times]
Use Me: Finally this week, Alan Feuer checked in on gallerist Stefania Bortolami's intriguing "Artist/City" initiative, an ongoing program of site-specific installations, each one created by a single member of the gallery's roster and exhibited for a full year in a location outside the usual art-world prestige circuit. For Bortolami herself, the project doesn't just represent an opportunity to escape the hamster-wheel hellscape of global art fairs, not-so-secretly-selling biennials, and other increasingly commerce-driven and capital-intensive industry musts. It's also an opportunity to allow her artists to spread their wings outside the time constraints of the contemporary gallery sector's typical five to six-week exhibition cycle, as the extended duration of the projects frees their creators to evolve the works in any way, and as many times, as they see fit.
The first two iterations of "Artist/City" are already on view: a Daniel Buren-activated Miami event space, initially filled with a series of bed-sheet paintings and later refreshed with a walkable grouping of sculptural arches; and an Eric Wesley-controlled former Taco Bell franchise in Cahokia, Illinois, enlivened by a three-phase (and counting) "accumulative project" running through April 2017. (No word yet on whether Wesley's piece will encourage multi-cultural avant-rappers Das Racist to reunite for a gallery-centric remix of this viral sensation.) Feuer reports that Bortolami's third "Artist/City" venue will open this winter, when Tom Burr unveils his contributions to a defunct Pirelli Tire Company office in New Haven, Connecticut––a space provided to the gallery for the nominal annual rent of one dollar by the building's current owner, IKEA.
Although Bortolami's associate director quips late in the piece that, "When you're studying art history, you don't think that one day you'll be on the phone, dealing with IKEA," I'm increasingly of the belief that you should––even if you plan to work on the industry's for-profit side. With the traditional gallery system bifurcating to the top and bottom of the price hierarchy, short-term partnerships of all kinds are becoming more and more vital to sellers who want to operate somewhere below the cloud city of mega-galleries and ultra-high net-worth collectors. Given the obscene amount of corporate marketing money now available from commercial brands as desperate to associate themselves with the arts as most teen virgins are to dissociate themselves from celibacy, I would encourage artists and arts entrepreneurs alike to get comfortable with the prospect of leveraging conglomerates like IKEA for all they're worth. Just be sure that, like Bortolami, you're the one taking advantage of THEIR eagerness to produce worthwhile culture rather than the other way around. [The New York Times]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, remember to get it while the getting's good.