28 December 2009

Art Market Rules

(A beautiful Van Dyck self-portrait from his late period. $13.5 million as of December 9, 2009... shocking, given that the previous day a throwaway sketch by Raphael went for $47.5 million and a perfectly ordinary Rembrandt self-portrait went for $32.7 . Though I wonder if my infatuation with this painting is partly due to its astonishing and perfect frame. It is scandalous that museums' information labels universally fail to account for the origin of a painting's frame. Nothing else in cultural history is so elementary and evocative of its moment.

A painting's frame speaks of successive generation's conceptions of space- this tension in art between art's utility as a decorative object and art's function [forgive me here for Elijah Craig's influence...] as a metaphysical text. In no other media can you learn as much about the sophistication and empathy of the owners or curators who have lived with the art itself in its intervening years.)

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My dad told me a funny anecdote he once heard. When asked about the price of Rembrandt painting he had recently purchased, Norton Simon said something to the effect of, "Well this painting probably cost about a dollar in 1650 and its worth about 5 million now, so all in all art appreciates at a fairly boring rate of return."

At the end of his book "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark," Don Thompson sets out some tongue in cheek rules for purchasing art:

"With the work of western artists, what kind of painting will appreciate most? There are general rules. A portrait of an attractive woman or a child will do better than that of an older woman or an unattractive man. An Andy Warhol Orange Marilyn brings twenty times the price of an equal-sized Richard Nixon.

"Colors matter. Brett Gorvy, co-head of contemporary art at Christie's International, claims the grading from most salable to least is red, white, blue, yellow, green, black. When it comes to Andy Warhol, green moves up. Green is the color of money.

"Bright colors do better than pale colors. Horizontal canvases do better than vertical ones. Nudity sells for more than modesty, and female nudes for much more than male. A Boucher female nude sells for ten times the price of a male nude. Figurative works do better than landscapes. A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit, and roses are worth more than chrysanthemums. Calm water adds value (think of Monet's Water Lilies); rough water brings lower prices (think of maritime pictures). Shipwrecks bring even less.

"Purebred dogs are worth more than mongrels, and racehorses more than cart horses. For painting that include game birds, the more expensive it is to hunt the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting; a grouse is worth three times as much as a mallard. There is an even more specific rule, offered by New York private dealer David Nash: painting with cows never do well. Never.

"A final rule was contributed by Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer. Meyer was auctioning a 1972 Bruce Nauman neon work, Run from Fear/Fun from Rear, which referred to an erotic act. When the work was brought in, a voice from the back of the room complained, 'Obscenity.' Meyer, not know for his use of humor on the rostrum, responded, 'Obscenity sells.' Often it does not, but for a superstar artist like Jeff Koons or Bruce Nauman, it does. It did."

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(A very early Robert Irwin. Probably the kind of painting he would have destroyed later in his career, if given half the chance. Sold September 24th, 2009 for $16,000. Estimated in May 2009 for $80,000-$120,000. It went unsold at that time.

I'm not sure (heat of the moment and all) what it would have sold for had I been present in the room. But I assure you, if we check back on this painting in a few decades we will find this buyer got the the deal of the century.

I don't mean to insinuate that I particularly like this painting. But centuries from now, when the concept of the post-modern has long ago become but the conceit of only the most pathetic of Ph.d types trolling for a brutally sloppy and disease ridden end to a pathetic gang-bang worth of a dissertation topics- Robert Irwin will be viewed a one of the men who brought the progression of modernism from its origins in multi-plained abstractions of Cezanne and the shimmering equal-luminescences of Monet to its apotheosis in pure perceptual bliss. And this crappy early abstract work will certainly achieve a perfectly respectable rate of return.)

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