What's Wrong with Regional Records?
While I was cycling through Twitter Monday morning, I found my timeline being carpet bombed with moment by moment updates from Sotheby’s regarding results in their Doha Contemporary sale. I had zero qualms about the practice in general. After all, what else are a major house’s social media accounts for than to flog the monetary successes thundering off their auction block?
But one wrinkle to some of the tweets did catch my eye. That wrinkle was Sotheby’s touting certain sales results as blue chip artists’ “Middle East records,” i.e. the highest prices achieved by gavel for said artists during an auction physically held within the region. A couple examples:
Now, I understand completely why Sotheby’s would publicize this idea. Fine art sales, as we know all too well, is an industry increasingly defined by superlatives: the highest prices, the top collectors, the most prestigious exhibitions, etc. Success is on some level a matter of optics. Go big or go extinct.
And this is particularly true in the auction sector–the only one in the market where explicitly broadcasting your sales figures is not only a virtue, but your core marketing tool for attracting future business. In that sense, Sotheby’s and its competitors have incentive to over-stuff their PR transmissions with as many new records as they possibly can, fat guy in a little coat style.
But from an objective standpoint, the concept of a “Middle East record” strikes me as at least silly, if not outright misleading. So much of what’s furiously pushing the art market to its vertigo-inducing heights is globalization. I just wrote about one example of the changes triggered by that phenomenon last week, and the same upshot applies here as well: Because sales activity is no longer limited by geographical borders, internationally adored blue chip brands benefit, and lesser known local or regional ones suffer.
In short, the art world is flattening. And it’s flattening precisely because the top tier entities are crushing everyone below.
That’s a wonderful development for a renowned auction house like Sotheby’s. Globalization means anyone, anywhere, with the resources to bid up their lots has multiple avenues to do so: via phone, via the house’s online BIDNow platform, via absentee bid form, via arranging for a proxy to physically represent her in the auction room itself.
But this newfound commercial flexibility is precisely what makes the idea of a “Middle East record”–or a Chinese record, a North American record, or anything short of a world record–increasingly hollow. It’s technically true…but it’s also just as much an invention. Especially when it comes to branded blue chip artists like Hirst or Kapoor whose works have been desired, offered, and acquired worldwide for years.
Physical location is nearing irrelevance at the top of the market. The new owner of a Sotheby’s Contemporary auction lot is equally likely to be in a different time zone, a different country, a different continent from the auctioneer and the piece when hammer and rostrum collide. Hell, with an absentee bid or a physical proxy, the winning collector could be living out the rest of her life on a one-way mission to Mars. She could literally be dead.
In a material sense then, the only party to whom a “Middle East record” matters is Sotheby’s. Their Doha office opened in 2008 but didn’t hold its first sale until 2009, meaning the house is still undoubtedly focused on legitimizing its presence in the region at this point in time. Building the narrative of “Middle East records” is an obvious way to help craft the perception of continued growth there.
Still, from a higher altitude, I can’t help but compare the “Middle East record” to the increasingly ludicrous, increasingly qualified statistical milestones flooding your average major sports telecasts today–records like “most NBA free throw attempts by a player drafted from a Division II college” or "longest homerun in an interleague MLB game by a switch hitter with a lifetime batting average under .250.“
Again, these are all facts if we strain hard enough. But do they matter? Or are we just filling space?
It’s a question worth asking not only because of this one particular example, but because of the trend lines. While trying (and unfortunately, failing) to find the number of international bidders registered for Sotheby’s spring 2014 New York Contemporary sale, I found this press release summarizing the auction’s results. It includes such milestones as "record for a neon by the artist at auction,” “record for a photo installation by the artist at auction,” and “record for a work on paper by the artist at auction.” I have no doubt we’ll soon see even finer grained qualifications to manufacture even more personal bests.
In short, the record rampage is only just beginning to flood the art world’s airwaves. But while we may not be able to escape it, I’d advise everyone to stay vigilant about how much of the content is signal and how much is just noise.