With the 2016 editions of multiple art fairs––The Armory Show, Volta, Pulse, and Spring/Break––now all running like mad in New York through this weekend, we're about due for my favorite part of the industry news cycle: the deal reports from the art-fair floors. But before we digest the pricing and piece-specific details the various media outlets will offer up over the next few days, let's first examine them from a perspective that's too-often abandoned when dealers' data is (finally) within reach. And that perspective is one of healthy skepticism.
The issue is simple. In a sector of the art market where specific sales info is usually guarded as closely as Evangelical virginity, for a few magical days in every major fair cycle, select dealers suddenly decide to open up to reporters about what booth inventory they've moved and, often, at what prices. It looks like a welcome flow of intel in a landscape known for being Death-Valley dry, and market-watchers like myself tend to pounce on it like we've been dying of thirst.
But it begs an obvious question: Why should we believe it? Since, in almost all cases, the dealers conveniently leave out the buyers' names in these alleged sales, there's no way for reporters to fact-check the deal terms. Meanwhile, the people who stand to benefit most from controlling the narrative are––surprise!––the very same people happily serving up these hot tips. After all, what more efficient way is there for a dealer to deliver certain messages to collectors, curators, and rival dealers than through normally "privileged" information the press will be eager to disseminate across the industry?
In fairness, I'm not suggesting that all, or even most, sales reported this weekend will be fiction. But I am underlining that: A) we can't know for sure, B) volunteering this info is extremely unorthodox for dealers at any other time in the art-market calendar, and C) obvious incentives exist for those same dealers to at least embellish the truth a bit. So instead of automatically treating every deal laid bare in the trades this weekend as a fact, I'd encourage everyone to at least consider the possibility that it could be spin––especially if getting swept up in that spin would only wrap us right around its source's finger.