The Seeds of Value
Just under two weeks from today, Christie’s will slam a rare early Caravaggio painting onto the auction block, and the piece’s pre-sale estimate speaks to an illuminating inconsistency in the “art as asset” mythos.
The house’s experts have attached a $3-5M valuation to Boy Peeling Fruit (ca. 1591). And while the usual caveats about the psychology of pre-sale estimates apply (long story short: set the bar low to get potential buyers salivating over a deal, then watch them skyrocket the ultimate sales price by getting lost in a financial pissing contest), Christie’s valuation serves as another data point for the notion that even the crassest Wall Street principles don’t fully explain what’s energizing certain sectors of the art market today.
To understand why, a little background is necessary. The painter most art lovers know as Caravaggio produced less than 100 paintings during his fascinating, thuggish life. (FYI, if you want to pull rank at your next wine tasting: His actual name was Michelangelo Merisi. The “da Caravaggio” tagged on the end just means “from Caravaggio,” i.e. his city of origin is usually being substituted for his family name. Now knock ‘em dead, tiger.) Christie’s alleges in its catalogue entry that Boy Peeling Fruit “may be the artist’s earliest known work.” True or not, it’s undeniably an exemplar of the unique style that made him an icon in the art historical canon. And to top it off, the piece has been off the market for nearly 40 years, having last appeared at auction in 1976.
The ADHD summary, then: The painting is mega rare, super important, and almost never available. If the art market is valuing Boy Peeling Fruit the way another luxury market would value a similar asset, its pre-sale estimate should be an exceptionally high number within the field.
Surprise! It’s not. As anyone who follows the high end of the art industry will tell you, $3-5M is a modest sum at auction, especially if it applies to contemporary work rather than the Old Master genre.
For comparison’s sake, Boy Peeling Fruit has the exact same pre-sale estimate as this large 1950-51 Sam Francis painting in Christie’s most recent New York Post-War Evening Sale. The Francis wasn’t even one of the featured lots in that auction–and, no disrespect to Sam, nor should it have been. It’s certified blue chip. But frankly, it’s not all that special.
So why isn’t Caravaggio’s 424 year-old, one-of-ninety-or-so-originals painting valued far more dearly than the 64 year-old, one-or-more-available-in-every-decent-auction Sam Francis painting? Because buying branded contemporary art is now as much about buying a lifestyle as about investing in growth–let alone about exercising aesthetic connoisseurship.
To me, all the evidence this theory needs is one glance back at Art Basel Miami Beach 2014. The exclusive parties, the glamorous dinners, the lavish opening receptions attended by global plutocrats and gleaming mass culture celebrities alike–these are the true aphrodisiacs of 21st century contemporary collecting, even more so than the lure of quick and hefty profits from flipping.
Acquiring the work of young supernova talents and their blue chip predecessors is on some level a combination of Bat Signal and membership fee. It announces a collector as a player and grants them entry to an ultra-selective, freely roving social sphere filled with the world’s richest and most beautiful people–a sphere that more mainstream citizens of the world than ever are aware of and unsuccessfully clamoring for access to.
In short, buying the right work means buying top-tier social capital. I’d recommend this interview between Jerry Saltz and the artist Matthew Weinstein as prime evidence–I think they access a level of nuance and novelty foreign to many others enmeshed in the same topic.
But crucially, collectors have to buy the right work. Waving a 16th century Caravaggio at the doorman will not help you get past the velvet rope at the 1 Oak pop-up in South Beach, where you might be able to celebrate Art Basel’s finale by slamming Molly with Leo and 20 models. It will, however, win you admission to the types of old money gatherings where the guests discuss philanthropy, pretend to read first editions, and resignedly wait for death’s merciful embrace. And that is no way to party.
Admittedly, the real evidence for this hypothesis will be the bidding for Boy Peeling Fruit. If COINs (Collectors Only In Name) are really just financial opportunists scouring the market for underpriced assets, then they should lunge at the Caravaggio like shipwreck victims lunging for an injured seagull unlucky enough to crash-land on the life raft after the rations ran out. At its current estimate, the painting is a value investment par excellence, and any savvy speculator would be able to see it–then start the gears turning on the flipping machine for profit’s sake.
However, I don’t expect the Caravaggio bidding will ascend anywhere near the $58.4M paid for Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), let alone the $142.4M record for Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud. And I don’t expect we’ll see it appear on the auction block again anytime soon. Not because Boy Peeling Fruit is less rare or less art historically significant than those contemporary record-setters I just mentioned, but because today an artwork’s level of appreciation–in both a financial and an aesthetic sense–depends less on its status as a cultural treasure than its ability to double as a killer VIP pass.