The Value of Knowing
While contemporary art’s dominance in today’s market is unquestionable, the reasons behind it are far more debatable and diverse. I’ve written about many of them here on the blog: branded blue chip art’s transformation into a globally recognized status symbol; value-unconscious herd mentality; even plain old arbitrage.
Brand-within-a-brand Loic Gouzer of Christie’s would tell you (through Carol Vogel) that it has to do with the “raw angst” that appeals to “a generation of rich embryonic collectors.” Jerry Saltz and artist Matthew Weinstein would counter that it’s because contemporary art has been saddled, mounted, and ridden into the sunset by pop culture.
But when we search for the motives behind contemporary art’s dominance–especially when it comes to artists still living and working–one that tends to get overlooked is simple but powerful: certainty.
At first, this sounds counterintuitive. A young contemporary artist’s work is always an inherently volatile asset because there are few, if any, reliable indicators about her ultimate career arc. What’s almost never in question, though, is whether the work originated in her studio and left it with her blessing–and knowing that much has real value.
I was reminded of this truth a little earlier this week, when I saw the news that Christie’s abruptly pulled four works from its Antiquities sale in London just days ahead of the auction, over the works’ (allegedly) late-arising links to two known fraudsters.
This episode is only the latest in a long-running series. Authenticity and attribution are the hobgoblins of all past artistic periods. Was that Christ portrait painted by Leonardo, or just one of his students? Was this trove of modernist masterpieces looted from its rightful owners during the Nazis’ reign? Is that “ancient” Greek kouros at the Getty actually a replica being passed off as an original?
Even a short hop back to the 1950s can land you in a quagmire. Smart dealers and collectors have all been chastened by the still-ongoing Knoedler fakes scandal, in which more than $80M of forged Abstract Expressionist works slithered into circulation thanks to the treachery of a once-respected gallery.
All of the above are refreshers that the word of a living artist is still the only ironclad way to confirm a piece’s legitimacy (as Jasper Johns proved not once but twice in the past two years). Without that, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, collectors can be easily spooked out of buying a particular asset, especially when there are other options in the here and now that don’t harbor the same doubts.
Does that automatically make collecting contemporary smarter or more likely to pay off in the long run? Not really. It’s just a preference for one type of volatility over another. A fresh-from-the-studio Dan Colen painting may be just as worthless in 30 years as a forged kouros, depending on how art history plays out–and even Colen knows it. Worse, the Colen gets priced at a premium right now because of higher demand.
Still, collecting contemporary art is a little like owning a racehorse: Even though there’s no guarantee that the young colt you just bought will grow into a Triple Crown winner, at least you can be sure it’s not actually two dudes crouched over inside a felt costume. And for many collectors, that’s a certainty worth paying extra for.