Art ‘is in the bin’, but dealers can turn trash into treasure


Art ‘is in the bin’, but dealers can turn trash into treasure

In the art world everything has a price. It's a pity we don't know what and why

Hannah Betts

Last month, Banksy’s 2006 painting Girl With a Balloon self-shredded, having just gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £1.042m. The piece was left in a semi-destructed state – half intact, half in ribbons – provoking gasps from onlookers, many of whom were too shocked to even record the moment on their smartphones. The elusive artist then issued an Instagram post regarding the stunt, declaring he had installed the mechanism in case the image were “ever put up for auction”. The move was seen as a democratising gesture on the part of the graffiti artist, a satire on the bloated grotesqueries of the art market to coincide with the climax of the Frieze art fair, the London market’s busiest week.
Nevertheless, in a sign that reality is more ridiculous than any satire, the piece – renamed Love Is In The Bin – is now said to be worth twice the price, and the buyer of this emperor’s new artwork applauded for her unwittingly canny investment.
If this is the kind of malarkey that makes you feel as if it’s art itself that’s in the bin, then you will enjoy Nathaniel Kahn’s wry documentary for HBO, which looks at the money washing about (a minuscule proportion of) the art world and staggers giddily.
Indeed, you will enjoy it even if this is not your bugbear, such a compelling picture does Kahn paint of so many air-kissing predators, dodging trollies of Ruinart, muttering: “I want more” though tombstone teeth.
The Price of Everything – alluding to Wilde’s observation concerning cynics who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing” – follows Kahn’s Oscar-nominated My Architect of 2003, which charted the work of his father, Louis. To people its 98-minutes, Kahn and producer Jennifer Stockman, president of the Guggenheim museums, have amassed an impressive cast of dealers, auctioneers and artists. The last-mentioned are as nonplussed as the rest of us as to why their works garner such cartoonishly hyperbolic prices, not least as the money goes not to them, but to those money-grubbing investors who bought cheap, then sold high.
The individual who explains the how – if not the why – is Phillips CEO Ed Dolman. As the 20th century drew to a close, the world simply ran out of the solid investments that were old masters. At this point, something new was needed to sell to an emerging army of avaricious, lunatically loaded young buyers. Cue the creation of a market for contemporary works. In this context, argues Dolman: “Money is an inevitable consequence of demand and supply so there’s a temptation for the artists to overproduce.”
Behold, Jeff Koons, the world’s most commercially successful artist, creating his gargantuan sculpture Diamond in not one, but “five unique versions,” while minions churn out pimped masterpieces in his studio-cum-factory. He sets the “systems” in place, Koons argues, so the art still qualifies as his.
In contrast, a painter such as Marilyn Minter declares: “It’s too dangerous to even know about it,” it being the market, in case her work is corrupted by it. Meanwhile, we see Larry Poons trudging across snow to his studio to keep his art evolving in a way that lost him the love of the moneymen.
Considered “one of the boys” back in his dot days, Poons “slipped off”, as one-star buyer puts it. Yet this very vanishing act becomes his secret weapon, given that – to make big bucks – dealers must discover, or rediscover, something undervalued. Poons bags a New York show, commercial interest will surely follow, and so the carnival rolls on.
Or does it? As dealer Gavin Brown observes, the current engorged state of the market has rendered auction houses mere “trading houses for assets”. See Croesus-rich collector Stefan Edlis with his spreadsheet of acquisitions, decreeing that red makes a painting more valuable than brown (take that, Rembrandt), and fish are a no go (farewell, Matisse). For curator Paul Schimmel, the market is a bubble we must keep afloat as “there’s no golden age without gold”. For others, it feels more akin to a boil awaiting a lance.
When Amy Cappellazzo, chair of Sotheby’s fine art division, hears Gerhard Richter has said he prefers to see his work in museums, she sniffs: “That’s just his socialist democratic way of avoiding having to deal with rich people who want them,” dismissing such institutions as a collective “cemetery”.
Such is the effect of all this, that even a disputed old master such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi can bring in $450m. We’re encouraged to see the exhibition around which Khan’s documentary hovers, Sotheby’s The Triumph of Painting: The Steven and Ann Ames Collection of 2016, as another in a long line of dizzying triumphs. However, its $276.6m results represented a 6% decline from a similar sale the previous year.
At the same time, global sales dropped as the number above $10m halved from 160 to 80, according to the database Artprice. Meanwhile, we hear Koons dismissed as “lobby art”, which may prove the kiss of death for those filler-plump lips.
Is everything about to go down Maurizio Cattelan’s golden lavatory? According to Gavin Brown: “The reckoning has begun.” The recent record-breaking $90.3m sale of David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) suggests said reckoning may take some time.
- © The Daily Telegraph
The Price of Everything was released by HBO last week

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email or call 0860 52 52 00.