Insiders Dish on the Art Market
Credit Toby Melville/Reuter
During “Frieze Week,” a 1982 abstract by Gerhard Richter became the object of a 10-minute duel between two telephone bidders at Sotheby’s Friday evening auction of contemporary art. “Garten,” estimated at 3 million pounds to 4 million pounds, was finally knocked down for £10.2 million with fees, prompting whoops and applause from the packed salesroom. The painting had last been seen at auction in 1987, when it sold at Christie’s for £49,500.
The bidding battle for that Richter on Oct. 7, and the magnitude of its price (about $12.7 million), encapsulates why people become fascinated with the art market, and why, if they have enough money, they become collectors. A recent crop of books explores this fascination, suggesting that the current boom in the market for brand-name contemporary art for all its occasional blips is not going bust any time soon.
The Venezuelan-born collector Tiqui Atencio recalls in her new book, “Could Have, Would Have, Should Have: Inside the World of the Art Collector,” how as a young woman in New York she became “hooked” on the auction scene.
“I was in awe of the prices and adored the drama,” writes Ms. Atencio, who went on to sell Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting, “Dustheads,” for $48.8 million at Christie’s in New York in 2013.
The book is an entertaining insider’s guide to the thought processes of more than 80 of the world’s top collectors. Being a highly regarded collector herself, Ms. Atencio has been able to coax some candid responses from major names like Eli Broad, Peter Brant, Stefan Edlis, Adam Lindemann and Anita Zabludowicz, art-loving 0.1 percenters whose buying and selling habits, like those of the two bidders at Sotheby’s, are usually cloaked in confidentiality.
It is interesting to learn, for example, that when Ms. Zabludowicz, a London collector, bought her first artwork at auction in 1994 she herself was the underbidder, having forgotten that she had already left a commission bid; that when Mr. Broad opened his eponymous contemporary wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles in 2008, the mega-dealer Larry Gagosian said he didn’t have any “A+” pictures (he has since acquired some); and that Mr. Edlis, a Chicago-based collector, once sold a six-foot-square Andy Warhol because it didn’t match his carpet.
Ms. Atencio herself “an elegant Venezuelan who has the greatest home and gives the wildest parties on the French Riviera” is one of the many glamorous friends name-checked by Simon de Pury in his autobiography, “The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade.”
The Swiss-born Mr. de Pury is the former chairman of Phillips de Pury & Co. He left the auction house in 2012 when his shares were bought by the Mercury Group, a Russian luxury conglomerate, and the company reverted to the name Phillips.
Credit Luc Castel, via Phillips de Pury & Co
Mr. de Pury has had a flamboyant, checkered career. There have been highs, such as being appointed chairman of Sotheby’s Europe in 1992; and lows, such as being the auctioneer at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg’s disastrous 2002 sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York, at which 16 paintings valued at more than $1 million each failed to sell. He is now an art adviser and freelance auctioneer. His racy account reads at times like a Jackie Collins novel there is a lot of talk of the “Jet Set,” and he seems almost as fond of dropping names as he is of taking bids but the author has been in what he calls “the game of art” long enough to make some astute observations.
For example, he identifies his former Sotheby’s boss Peter Wilson as the man who invented today’s art market. Mr. Wilson had hired the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson to turn Sotheby’s 1957 London auction of the Wilhelm Weinberg collection of works by Vincent van Gogh and other Impressionist and modern artists into what Mr. de Pury calls “an event.” They sold for a total of more than $900,000, with Van Gogh and Monet among the names setting new salesroom highs.
“The public fascination with auction records had begun,” Mr. de Pury writes. “Money became the measure for art. ‘Is it beautiful?’ was answered by the question ‘Is it expensive?’ Art also began to be taken seriously as an investment.”
In his introduction to “The A-Z of the International Art Market,” to be published on Nov. 3, the author Tom Flynn describes even older antecedents for the commodification of art as an investment. Back in 1625, Balthasar Gerbier, art adviser to the Duke of Buckingham, reassured his aristocratic client that “Our pictures, if they were to be sold a century after our death, would sell for good cash, and for three times more than they cost.”
Mr. Flynn, a lecturer in the history of the art market, has written the first guide to this abstruse subject that combines an authoritative historical overview with a sure-handed grasp of insider lingo. “Naked,” we read, is the term for a work offered at auction without a prearranged guarantee as was the case with that Richter at Sotheby’s.
The recently published “Art Business Today: 20 Key Topics” is the fifth in a series of handbooks from the publisher Lund Humphries in collaboration with Sotheby’s Institute of Art. With campuses in London, New York and Los Angeles, the institute, which was bought from Sotheby’s in 2002 by Cambridge Information Group (who kept the name and branding), is a leading providers in “art business education.”
This more corporate tome, mainly written by lecturers at Sotheby’s Institute, will become a set text for the hundreds of international students who every year hope that its short courses and master’s degrees (the latter starting around £25,000 in London) will be a step up into the art world.
All these books convey, in their different ways, the intoxicating allure of today’s art market. For those who can afford it, owning brand-name art instantly confers cultural and financial status. If they buy and sell their Richters and Basquiats at the right time, they can also make a great deal of money.
But equally important, it gives the rich something fun to do.
Next month in New York, Sotheby’s will offer the collection of Steven Ames, a former partner at the investment house Oppenheimer & Co., who died in March. The collection includes two 1980s Richter abstracts estimated to sell for at least $20 million each.
Mr. Ames has the final word in Ms. Atencio’s book, “Could Have, Would Have, Should Have.” When the author spoke to him in June 2014, he talked about the extent to which art had changed the lives of wealthy collectors like themselves. “The way we travel, who our friends are. Who knew it could do that?” Mr. Ames said. “If we did not have art, what would we talk about? Golf?”