Over-hyping the auctions

April 24 2012

Image of Over-hyping the auctions

Picture: Christie's/Gerhard Richter, 'Seestuck'

Over at Forbes, Abigail Esman has an interesting piece looking at the dangers of auction house hyperbole: 

I cannot recall a time ever before when an auction season kicked off with as much hype and bluster as is now blowing about the upcoming May sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York – the first of the two annual sales of modern and contemporary art that set the tone for the market and establish artist prices for the season. [...] the auction houses are outdoing themselves, tripping over one another in their efforts to locate – and then to sell – the “lost” “forgotten” “unknown” “fresh-to-market” masterpieces that, they promise, represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see, let alone to own, the most important, valuable, spectacular, significant, critically-acclaimed, influential, coveted art treasures of all time.

True, marketing has always been the domain of the superlative, and art writing the realm of the adjectival phrase.  And with prices at or above pre-recession levels – meaning that a single sale can be worth literally millions of dollars in commission – high competitiveness between the two largest auction houses for the most lucrative of the year’s sales is somewhat to be expected.  But there comes a point where not only do these sales pitches begin to sound ridiculous, but arguably place the art market itself in a precarious overdrive.

Christie’s, for instance, which boasted $5.7 billion in revenues for 2011, has announced the sale of “an exceptional selection of six important works by Gerhard Richter” at its Postwar and Contemporary sale on May 8.  (See catalogue here .) What will they do, then, with the next batch of “important” Gerhard Richter works?  Or will they be “even-more-important”?

More significantly, should these “exceptional works” fail to meet their estimates (however unlikely that may be given the current Richter fever), the ramifications on the Richter market could be enormous: after all, if these “exceptional” pieces don’t do so well, what about the less-exceptional ones? It is, in fact, difficult for me to discern what makes these individual works so particularly remarkable in comparison to many other Richter paintings I’ve seen out there for less – with the single exception of  “Seestück,” a 1969 seascape that recalls the glowing light of Frederick Turner, and the turbulence of Caspar David Friedrich’s haunting 1807 “Fog” and classic 1808 “Monk by the Sea.”

And in truth, with the market so flooded now with abstract Richters — ubiquitous at every art fair – the possibility that several of those in this group would fail to sell is not entirely unthinkable. (One can only hope that Christie’s PR’s declaration of this as a “landmark event in the Richter market doesn’t prove to be the wrong kind of “landmark.”)

All too true. When it comes to modern and contemporary sales, auction houses are increasingly behaving like estate agents, who seem to describe everything, even one-bedroom flats, as 'stunning'.

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