Market Monday: Explosions in the Sky
To honor the the 4th of July, a sequence of booms and flame-outs from across the industry's airspace...
This week's London auctions fulfilled many of last week's prophecies about Brexit's effect on the British art market. International collectors leveraged other currencies' newfound strength against the pound to snap up blue-chip works at a stealth discount––a phenomenon most visible in Sotheby's and Christie's above-the-high-estimate results in their contemporary evening sales, as well as in Christie's multigenerational themed auction, "Defining British Art." But since those estimates were all set months ago, i.e. when it was unthinkable that the pound could spend a week flirting with its lowest value since 1985, celebrating about "outperforming" them now is a little like celebrating about finally beating your big brother in a one-on-one basketball game after he lost his dominant hand in a fireworks accident. That reality may also account for the last-minute withdrawal of the cover lot from Christie's Postwar & Contemporary Evening Sale: a Gerhard Richter "Abstraktes Bild" toting the event's only eight-figure estimate. It seems plausible, if not likely, that the painting's owner recognized that even the consignors who "won" in a London auction house this week still lost––and that this knowledge convinced him or her to pull the piece so it could be sold in a more advantageous climate later.
[Sotheby's Contemporary Evening Sale recap: artnet News]
[Christie's Postwar & Contemporary Evening Sale recap: ARTnews ]
[Christie's "Defining British Art" Sale recap: The New York Times]
Back in the US, Los Angeles's storied Rosamund Felsen Gallery announced that it will fold up its physical operations after a "closing celebratory show" that opens July 9th. At various points since launching her first gallery in Los Angeles in 1978, Felsen has represented titans like Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy, as well as exhibited works by the likes of Joan Jonas, Lari Pittman, and Robert Rauschenberg. After turning in the key to her space, she will apparently continue on as a private dealer and "retain a digital presence." I suspect that simply means clients will continue to be able to contact her through the gallery's website, but here's hoping Felsen uses the (hopefully) low stakes of semi-retirement to experiment with more ambitious ideas online. Nothing would make me happier than if contemporary art's digital monetization code got cracked by a wily octogenarian. [ARTnews]
On the other side of the gallery sector's ledger, Thaddaeus Ropac chose London as the home for the fifth space in his growing armada. For those keeping score at home, the Austrian gallerist already operates two spaces in Salzburg and another two in Paris. The newest space, located in the increasingly gallery-saturated Mayfair district, will reportedly debut in spring 2017 after a full-building renovation by Annabelle Selldorf. Since Ropac's newest addition is just another product of the "More" Machine churning through the gallery sector, let's focus on Selldorf, who seems to have assembled a near-monopoly on high-end gallery architecture. Ropac now joins Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Gladstone, Skarstedt, Michael Werner, and more on Selldorf's list of cultural clients. I applaud her for conquering a lucrative niche. But at the same time, Selldorf's grip on the sector's peak also shows that the global consensus of taste in the arts doesn't just help determine much of what we see on elite galleries' exhibition schedules. It even helps determine what elite galleries themselves look like, quietly strengthening the sense of déjà vu settling over the industry in the 21st century. [ARTFORUM]
News broke on Thursday that Belgian mega-collector Baron Guy Ullens is looking to sell both his entire personal collection and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the renowned private institution he and his wife Myriam co-founded in Beijing in 2007. The two assets are independent of one another for financial purposes, but it's fair to ask whether Ullens's decision to liquidate both at the same time has to do with more than just his advanced age. (Ullens turns 81 this year, which to my dismay just triggered an image of he and Rosamund Felsen co-starring in a geriatric reboot of The Thomas Crown Affair.) Diane Wong notes that the Ullens have been steadily decreasing their financial commitment to the Center since its second year of exhibitions, with the family foundation providing only 20 percent of its operating budget in 2015. Teamed with the couple's 2011 sale of nearly 200 works at Sotheby's to support their institution, it seems as though the exorbitant costs of running a top-flight private museum may have just outstripped the Ullens' expectations. And if so, that outcome reinforces why American mega-collectors will fight tooth and nail to maintain the generous tax breaks they currently enjoy for opening private museums on Uncle Sam's shores: Without major financial assistance, high-end cultural nonprofits are about as unforgiving as businesses come. [RanDian]
For those of you with a New Yorker subscription, Rebecca Mead profiled swashbuckling auction specialist Loïc Gouzer, whose string of wildly successful themed auctions have vaulted him from Sotheby's misfit to Christie's Deputy Chairman of Post-war & Contemporary Art. I doubt that anyone already immersed in the extravagance and eccentricities of the high-end art market will find much eye-opening information in the piece, but even setting aside entertainment value and confirmation bias, I think it's notable for one reason: If someone were to go into the text and swap out all the names of artworks for equities and auction houses/galleries for investment banks/brokerages, the profile would become almost indistinguishable from one that the magazine would have published about, say, penny-stock kingpin Jordan "The Wolf of Wall Street" Belfort a generation ago. To be clear, I'm not accusing Gouzer, Christie's, or anyone else of criminal behavior. (Belfort's success owed in large part to massive fraud, if you don't know his story.) I'm just pointing out that, at least in Gouzer's case, the amount of distance between the lifestyle of a high-powered contemporary-art professional and a high-powered finance-sector playboy is rapidly approaching zero. [The New Yorker]
And finally, the famously bonkers July 4th fireworks extravaganza held by American art-critic laureate Peter Schjeldahl officially became a casualty of the digital age this week, after news of its existence effectively went mainstream thanks to social media last year. Attendance at the event––held annually at Schjeldahl's property in the Catskills since the late 1980s––swelled to roughly 2,000 people in 2015, with most of the "guests" being complete strangers to Schjeldahl and his wife. Knowing full well that this year's turn-out would be even more extreme, the couple decided to put the tradition to bed once and for all. Am I including this story as evidence that technology is launching the art world deeper and deeper into pop culture, with results that industry lifers may not particularly like? Not really. I'm mostly doing it because I loved the image of Schjeldahl, the erudite art sage (and one of my favorite critics), engineering a fireworks show that one guest described as "like that scene in Apocalypse Now where they visit the USO show with the Playboy bunnies." So here's the link to Dan Duray's story about attending the event in 2011. Hope you get as much joy out of it as I did. I think we all deserve it. [Observer]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, remember: If you're going to play with fire, you might as well go big enough to make the outcome a spectacle.