The saddest thing about most art journalists is not that they don’t understand economics, it is that they don’t even try to understand economics. Take the hardworking Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal, who published a piece there called, "Art’s New Winners and Losers," which, based on nothing, claimed that Jasper Johns was "up" after last week’s auctions and that Richard Prince and Edvard Munch were "down."
Another savvy observer, Souren Melikian, wondered in the New York Times why a "difficult" 1964 Richard Tuttle received a record price and a refabricated early Richard Serra also set a record. The answer lies in the fundamentals of an evening sale, whose purpose is to set price points for a series of classic artists, what is called in general commerce "painting the tape." New York Observer culture editor Alexandra Peers characterized the Sotheby’s contemporary auction to me as "very well choreographed." What this means is that a large, seminal Tuttle of a rather boring stripe (whose iconography particularly distressed Melikian) is the end, not the beginning, of a process.
The process began five years ago with a series of Tuttle shows in New York, put into play by speculative collectors with a lot of Tuttle holdings, such that even studio ephemera was purchased from Tuttle directly and put on exhibition. The idea was that rising prices for Tuttle would increase the book value of all Tuttle holdings, which could then be used as collateral for bank loans leading to further speculation in a "basket of art."
Then, the crash happened. And the Tuttle market, as witnessed by this week’s auction of an early but visually dull piece, survived it. Martin Kippenberger, whose work enjoyed similar paroxysms of recent speculation, did not (largely due to the fact that Tuttle’s “touch” is such a big part of his oeuvre, whereas Kippenberger farmed out his fabrication). This week’s Tuttle price, however artificially arrived at, means that trading and collateralization of Tuttle pieces as economic instruments can be expected to proceed in an orderly, increasingly lucrative, fashion.
Which brings us to Serra, who is, like Tuttle, an aging artist with an impeccable scholarly pedigree, but with one important difference: Serra’s most saleable objects come from his poured works and other experiments as a young groundbreaker. Do these efforts stand as signifiers of his later public art or as incidentals of immaturity that really have no artistic (thus no market) significance? Clearly, one $1,900,000 bidder at Sotheby’s was willing to mortgage the farm on the seamless significance of Serra’s hand-driven output, its rarity (relative to works by someone like Tuttle) and its continuing desirability.
Of such calculations are auctions made. Good luck reading about them in the traditional media.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).