Monday, May 17, 2010

All This Talk About Money

Recently we have all read about the record $106.5 million that a Picasso brought at a Christies auction. The picture was titled “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” but what added significance to it was that it was quite personal for the artist since it represented his mistress at the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Many would say it was not even from his best period. Imagine what an early cubist piece by Picasso might bring?

Price does not represent value but only what someone is willing to pay at a given moment in a given venue. The auctions give a deadline that you do not get at a dealer. People feel if they don’t make up their minds at that moment they will never have another chance. While the dealer gives one the illusion that one has all the time in the world. Often a dealer will give a potential buyer a nudge: Mr. Jones buys all my widgets and he is coming in next week; or This is going into an exhibition or into a fair next month and it will may be quickly sold. One of the best dealer lines is, -- I love this piece so much I really hope that I can take it home. I have only said that twice in my career, when I really felt that way. In both cases, that was the closer. The collectors walked out with my piece!

In art while we do not have a market like Wall Street. One share of Apple is worth the same as another share at a given moment, while one Boucher may not be worth the same as another. We can get a pretty good idea of the range a Boucher may sell in. Then, depending on subject matter, salability, condition and quality the price is adjusted accordingly. But there are the rare, unique and extraordinary pieces, such as Michael Crichton’s Jasper Johns that was sold a few days ago at Christies for $28.6 million. Here we had a painting by a great American artist, from the estate of a world famous author, and most importantly the artist’s iconic image of the American Flag. This subject by the artist has been breaking records for decades.

Why is price so important? Well, I learned the hard, or should I say embarrassing, way. In 1981 an article about art was published on the front page of the New York Times. Not the front page of the art section but the front page of the newspaper.

It was a story by Grace Glueck in which she wrote about the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth buying a Velasquez from the Wildenstein Gallery for $6 million dollars. I was absolutely thrilled that an art article should appear on the front page so I called Grace Glueck to congratulate and thank her. I told her how happy I was about it but I wished she hadn’t had to write about the price. I could feel her patting the top of my head through the phone and saying, young man “how do you think I got the front page”! This brought the reality home to me. What sells newspapers and all other media is record prices.

So often I hear that the art market is doing well or badly based on the latest sale of contemporary art. I protest, to no avail, that the contemporary market is not the Old Master market or the Chinese art market or any other market. It is just a basket of commodities from one sector that forms the public mind about the entire art market.

What you need to decide for yourself is how the individual work you are considering compares with others in the same category. Then decide whether it is the best of what you can afford. That will be the piece that gives you the most pleasure and will best hold its value.

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