The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

Spend an hour or two at MoMA, Tate Mod­ern, or some oth­er world class muse­um and inevitably you’’ll over­hear some vari­a­tion of “my sev­en-year-old could paint that.”

May­haps, Madam, but how much would it fetch at auc­tion?

As a new doc­u­men­tary series, the Art Mar­ket (in Four Parts), makes clear, the mon­e­tary val­ue of art is tricky to assign.

There are excep­tions, of course, such as in the irre­sistible Picas­so anec­dote cit­ed in the trail­er, above.

Usu­al­ly how­ev­er, even the experts must resort to an edu­cat­ed guess, based on a num­ber of fac­tors, none of which can tell the whole sto­ry.

As jour­nal­ist and for­mer direc­tor of New York’s White Columns gallery, Josh Baer, points out in the series’ first episode below, even art mar­ket indices are an unre­li­able tool for assess­ing worth. A por­trait of actress Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor by Andy Warhol failed to attract a sin­gle bid at auc­tion, though art­net Price Data­base report­ed sales of between $27 mil­lion and $31.5 mil­lion for oth­er “Liz” paint­ings by the same artist.

I’d have thought a sig­na­ture as famous as Warhol’s would con­fer the same sort of ins­ta-worth Picas­so claimed his John Han­cock did.

The unpre­dictabil­i­ty of final sales fig­ures has led auc­tion hous­es to issue guar­an­tees in return for a split of the prof­its, a prac­tice Sotheby’s North and South Amer­i­ca chair­man, Lisa Den­ni­son, likens to an insur­ance pol­i­cy for the sell­er.

With the excep­tion of the ill-fat­ed Warhol’s great big goose egg, the num­bers bat­ted around by the series’ influ­en­tial talk­ing heads are pret­ty stag­ger­ing. Snap­py edit­ing also lends a sense of art world glam­our, though gal­lerist Michele Mac­carone betrays a cer­tain weari­ness that may come clos­er to the true ener­gy at the epi­cen­ter of the scene.

As for me, I couldn’t help think­ing back to my days as a recep­tion­ist in a com­mer­cial gallery on Chicago’s tourist friend­ly Mag­nif­i­cent Mile. I was con­temp­tu­ous of most of the stuff on our walls, which ran heav­i­ly to pas­tel gar­den par­ties and har­le­quins posed in front of rec­og­niz­able land­marks. One day, a cou­ple who’d wan­dered in on impulse dropped a ridicu­lous sum on a florid beach scene, com­plete with shim­mer­ing rain­bows. Rich they may have been, but their utter lack of taste was appalling, at least until the wife excit­ed­ly con­fid­ed that the paint­ing’s set­ting remind­ed them of their long ago Hawai­ian hon­ey­moon. That clar­i­fied a lot for me as to art’s true val­ue. I hope that the cou­ple is still alive and enjoy­ing the most for their money’s worth, every sin­gle day.

The Art Market’s oth­er three parts, “Gal­leries,” “Patrons,” and “Art Fairs,” will be released week­ly through mid-June. And we’ll try to add them to this post, as they roll out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Warhol: The Bell­wether of the Art Mar­ket

Braque in Bulk: Cost­co Gets Back into the Fine Art Mar­ket

1933 Arti­cle on Fri­da Kahlo: “Wife of the Mas­ter Mur­al Painter Glee­ful­ly Dab­bles in Works of Art”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She wrote about her brief stint as a gallery recep­tion­ist in her third book, Job Hop­per: The Check­ered Career of a Down-Mar­ket Dilet­tante. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.