There is a sense, after two days of ambiguous sales, that Sotheby’s and Christie’s have cunningly positioned this week’s Imp/Mod auctions as a kind of hors d’oeuvre for next week’s smash palace of contemporary-art records to come, centered around the very desirable Jasper Johns Flag from novelist Michael Crichton’s estate.
Rather wittingly, the auction houses have designed an implicit competition between scarce, esthetically inferior classics, such as the formulaic, drab Henri Matisse experiment in flowers that brought $28 million from some sucker, and the contemporary riches to come. This strategy nicely dovetails with the Met’s Picasso survey, which begs the question, "Christie’s we have a problem: all this stuff and nowhere to go for cash on the barrelhead." For surely, the Met’s Picassos could be culled by 10 percent with little damage and, harmoniously, up the auction houses’ quality level of early, mid- and late-inferior Picassos.
Perfectly encapsulating the problems of the market is the already waning fascination with Giacometti, analogous to a high-priced courtesan who only knows one special trick. It’s like the old joke about Bo Derek: she’s a 10, but after five years of marriage, she’s a 5, and the guy who married her is worth zero. Such are the usual defibrillations which the auction publicists continue, after all these years, to filter through the Bo Derek of auction reporters, Carol Vogel of the New York Times, whose investigations of who bought what always stop at whatever auction employees happened to be taking phone calls.
It is as if a White House beat reporter got all his or her news from the Oval Office website. Vogel’s insight this time around seemed to be that "Asians" had come back in the market, albeit with the blind sense of branding, coupled with esthetic immaturity, that characterized the Japanese auction bubble of the late 1980s. I ran this by one of Vogel’s old female running buddies who commented, "By Asian, she means one fella from Singapore who is building his collection."
Longtime followers of my ruminations will not be surprised that I continue to wish the auction houses an existence characterized by transparency, superior product, robust bidding and real news. As Stewart Waltzer has pointed out far better than I, Picasso’s lavender leap into voyeurism is really a $140 million picture, whose true value has been depressed by derivative arrangements guaranteed to get auction big shots on the next plane to Dubai with the next Times Square suicide bomber.
We shall see what blows up first.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).