Mirror, Mirror on the Market...
In the midst of last week's historic bout of auction mania, investment coverage behemoth Barron’s ran a piece by Barbara Haislip on a semi-controversial new venture in the art market. That venture is Emily MacDonald-Korth and James Korth's Art Preservation Index (APIx). Yet the allegedly scandalous aspects of APIx, at least to me, actually say as much about whoever is looking at the business as those of us doing the looking can ever say about the business itself.
The concept behind APIx is simple and, I think, valuable. It’s designed to be a standardized rating system for the material stability (or instability) of any artwork on the market. A work’s APIx number quantifies how likely its physical media, from paints to wood to thoroughly chewed gum, will be to degrade over time and in certain environmental conditions.
The venture also offers full reports that break down (ugh, no pun intended) the detailed scientific justification for their rating–all so that anyone with a potential financial stake in the work can understand how best to preserve it, as well as how likely it is to need (always exorbitantly expensive) conservation work done in the future.
Now, had MacDonald-Korth, a former specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute prior to opening the for-profit Longevity Art Preservation LLC, presented all of the above in the context of an important museum acquisition, even the staunchest art purists would have been disinclined to rise from their lotus flowers and contest APIx. But because she instead pitched the concept to Haislip in the following terms (added emphasis mine), she got some people as riled as a biting insect that scurried into their underwear:
“While the APIx might not make everyone in the art market happy at first, the system needs to be adopted. We need this new model for trading art as an asset because it incorporates stability and risk awareness.”
And just like that, APIx suddenly transforms into a giant Kafka-esque cockroach threatening the commerce-resistant.
But should that be the case? All that MacDonald-Korth is proposing is that buyers, sellers, insurers, and every other concerned party in the industry should be pricing in fine art’s volatility, the same way that the financial markets price in individual securities’ volatility. The higher the risk, the lower the cost, and vice versa. Hardly a nonsensical idea, let alone an offensive one.
Obviously, she’s built two businesses–Longevity and APIx–meant to directly profit from this idea, so she has a vested interest in trying to make this point of view stick. But does that mean that she’s some parasite leeching the soul out of art solely to convert it to tasty dollar bills?
I don’t think so. And in my opinion, neither should anyone with a monetary stake in blue chip art. But the fact that MacDonald-Korth drew a line from art to investment with such a bold marker determined, for some people anyway, their entire perception of the issue.
Instead of a valuable safeguard for public institutions’ ability to exhibit works for the average viewer over the long term, it was seized on by the sensitive as a crass tool for making art more liquid for a closed circle of high net worth collectors.
The truth, of course, is that APIx can be both of these things at once. How you view the business is entirely a reflection of how you view the state of the art market. And by and large, it seems that many observers would still rather choose sides than acknowledge complexity.